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Concerns Raised Over "Limited Term" Licenses

Some say that the Texas Department of Public Safety is going against its own policy with its "limited term" designations for driver's licenses and identification cards.

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The Texas Department of Public Safety’s classification of licenses for some legal residents as “limited term” documents is drawing criticism from some who claim the department is going against stated policy.

The documents in question are being issued to some after proving they are in the country legally when applying for driver’s licenses or state identification cards. The label “limited term” is at the top of the applicant’s license. The DPS states on its website that it issues such licenses upon “verification of temporary lawful presence in the U.S.” and that the licenses expire “when the period of lawful presence expires.”

But critics say that isn’t consistent with a policy stating that all licenses and ID cards should be in the same format.

In 2008, the DPS enacted a policy requiring proof of legal status before receiving state-issued licenses. It was challenged in courts after plaintiffs said the department acted without legislative authority. Part of the lawsuit argued that issuing a different license to noncitizens — a vertical document that read “temporary visitor” across the top in bold lettering — was discriminatory.

“We had stories about people that weren’t able to get credit, they weren’t able to get a bank account, weren’t able to or had problems registering for school, at the university,” said David Hinojosa, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In June, MALDEF successfully argued for an injunction against the DPS policy, alleging it acted outside its scope of authority.

That proof-of-legal-status requirement, however, was granted in 2011 when the policy was added as an amendment to a fiscal matters bill passed during the special session that ended in June. Even U.S. citizens who had not done so previously must prove their legal status when they renew their licenses.

The amendment stated, however, that licenses “must be in the same format, have the same appearance and orientation; and contain the same type of information.” Some interpreted that to mean that DPS would stop issuing a different license to noncitizens.

When asked to explain the difference between the phrases “temporary visitor” and “limited term,” Tom Vinger, the department’s assistant chief of public affairs, said he could not get the information to The Texas Tribune by deadline.

MALDEF says it has been prompted to submit an open-records request to the department after hearing complaints that the DPS is issuing the licenses with the “limited term” designation in red lettering.

“It’s our understanding that the law, as it was written, did not allow them to change the appearance of the licenses," Hinojosa said. "But there might be some wording that could be ambiguous."

Hinojosa is also questioning whether some DPS offices are interpreting the rules differently, or whether there are some “rogue” officials in the department that are continuing the practice despite the language in the bill.

“I don’t know if their attorneys actually know, that’s one of the things that we have to investigate,” he said.

Expiration dates have also been an issue. The amendment authorizes the DPS to determine expiration dates for noncitizens based on when an immigration document expires. If the immigration document does not have an expiration date, the department may issue an ID or license that expires annually.

Karla Reséndiz, a University of Texas graduate who was recently granted permanent residency status, also called a green card, said her current license expires when her green card does, two years from now. But Ricardo, a Dallas legal resident who asked his last name not be used, said his expiration date was moved up after a review of more than one document. He is in Texas legally with an H1B visa, a specialty document for certain professionals, which he said must be renewed every three years. But his expiration date was based on his I-94 document, an arrival and departure record that a legal immigrant must fill out when leaving or returning to the U.S., which, Ricardo said, expires sooner.

When asked what form the DPS uses to determine an expiration date and why, Vinger referred to the department’s Temporary Visitor Issuance Guide. (The guide states that applicants with an H1B visa will be an issued an expiration date consistent with their I-94, but it gives no explanation as to why that is the case.)

Asked why an H1B holder’s expiration date on that document could differ from that on an I-94 form, Rick Pauza, a public affairs specialist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said several factors could affect the duration of an I-94 form.

“An officer must take into account the totality of the information, entry documentation presented and specific circumstances with an applicant for admission to the U.S. and process the person accordingly,” he said. 

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