Too Tough, But Not for Long

An Austin judge ruled this week that the Texas Department of Public Safety overstepped its authority when it enacted tougher requirements for immigrants trying to obtain driver's licenses, giving immigrants' rights groups and some business leaders a glimmer of hope.

 Graphic by Ben Hasson

An Austin judge ruled this week that the Texas Department of Public Safety overstepped its authority when it enacted tougher requirements for immigrants trying to obtain driver's licenses, giving immigrants' rights groups and some business leaders a glimmer of hope.

Judge Orlinda Naranjo ruled that DPS cannot deny immigrants with less than a year on their visas a driver's license, that DPS clerks cannot require applicants to furnish more paperwork than what a federal immigration officer would require to obtain proof of citizenship, and that a legal resident's driver's license cannot be different in appearance than a citizen's.

There's a twist, however. The judge ruled that DPS went outside the scope of its authority when it adopted the new rules in 2008. Fast forward to next month, however, and the DPS will have that authority, thanks to an amendment added to Senate Bill 1, the fiscal matters bill that kept lawmakers in Austin this summer for a special session.

That provision allows DPS to determine expiration dates for noncitizens' IDs based on when an immigration document was issued. For a noncitizen or nonpermanent legal resident, DPS can issue a document that "expires on the earlier of a date specified by DPS or the expiration date of the applicant's authorized stay in the United States." If the immigration document does not have an expiration date, DPS can issue an ID or license that expires annually.

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"The lawsuit has always been predicated on the fact that [DPS] does not have legislative authority to enact the rules they enacted," said attorney Luis Figueroa with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, part of the plaintiff's team. "[In the future] they can't try to wiggle around what the Legislature said."

Figueroa said after the ruling, though, that the department is appealing the decision.

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