LANSING - The state Senate took a step yesterday toward allowing legal immigrants to resume getting driver's licenses in Michigan.
The Republican-led chamber approved by a 28-9 vote a bill that would allow legal immigrants to get temporary licenses. Some Democrats voted against the measure because it has become embroiled in a broader debate about whether the state should comply quickly with upcoming requirements of the federal Real ID Act.
Some Democrats say the Real ID issue should be separate from a quick fix to allow legal immigrants to get behind the wheel. The measure that passed yesterday and is headed to the Democrat-led House is part of a package aimed at starting compliance with Real ID, a federal law aimed at stricter identification measures in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Some Democrats supported the bill, however, saying it was important to move along the legislation so legal immigrants could resume getting licenses as soon as possible.
"This is just the first step in the legislative process, and we need to get moving immediately," said Sen. Michael Switalski (D. Roseville), who voted in favor of the bill.
Republicans argued that Michigan should take more sweeping steps to secure its driver's license and identification procedures sooner rather than later.
"We shouldn't be dragging our feet on these bills," Sen. Alan Sanborn (R., Richmond) said.
Businesses and universities are urging quick action because some legal immigrants have been denied driver's licenses since the policy went into effect in late January.
State officials say nearly 400,000 foreign businesspeople, students, and their families are in Michigan on visas.
Greg Bird, a spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon, said the House soon would move on restoring driving privileges to legal immigrants. But Mr. Bird said many House Democrats don't think the issue should be tied to Real ID compliance.
Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land stopped giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants Jan. 22, responding to an opinion from Attorney General Mike Cox. Michigan had been one of the few states to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses.
Ms. Land interpreted the same opinion to mean those who legally are in the state but not permanent residents shouldn't get licenses, either.
Some Democrats have said she misinterpreted Mr. Cox's opinion as it pertains to legal immigrants. Ms. Land has stood by her decision and said she too wants legal immigrants to get licenses, but it will take a change in state law to allow it.
The current policy applies only to first-time applicants for driver's licenses. Applicants have to document legal and permanent residency in the United States, as well as Michigan residency, through documents such as a birth certificate, passport, and billing statements featuring name and address.
Many legal immigrants can continue driving in Michigan under terms of their valid licenses from their home countries.