November 17, 2023

Arguments heard in case alleging law discriminates against certain immigrants’ driving privileges

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A district court heard a case Friday alleging the state is prioritizing certain groups when providing government-issued driver's licenses.  - Lauren Chapman/IPB News

A district court heard a case Friday alleging the state is prioritizing certain groups when providing government-issued driver's licenses.

Lauren Chapman/IPB News

A district court heard a case Friday alleging the state is prioritizing certain groups when providing government-issued licenses. The ACLU of Indiana and the National Immigration Law Center filed the case on behalf of five Indiana residents from Haiti who want to get driver’s licenses.

The law, which went into effect in July, made Ukrainians on humanitarian parole eligible for Indiana driver’s licenses and identification cards.

Nicholas Espíritu is the deputy legal director at the National Immigration Law Center, one of the civil rights groups that filed the lawsuit. He said this law is discriminatory toward other groups on humanitarian parole.

“This is a matter where Ukrainian individuals can get driver's licenses. But individuals from Haiti, from Venezuela, from Cuba, from Nicaragua cannot — despite having the same immigration status,” he said.

William Bock, an attorney representing the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, argued the law is simply “mirroring federal objectives” by offering aid to Ukrainians in the United States.

“The [Indiana] General Assembly incorporates federal statute into Indiana law – they do it all the time,” Bock said.

He said the law was not intended to discriminate against other groups – the state simply took a federal statute and placed it into state law.

Gavin Rose is the senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Indiana. During court testimony, he said it is unfair for Ukranians to be the only group on humanitarian parole to receive these privileges.

“If [Bock] was born in Ukraine, he could walk right out of this room to the BMV and get a state-licensed identification card,” he said. “If he was Haitian, he could not.”

Jeffson Saint-Hilaire is a Haitian immigrant living in Indiana. He works in the state and supports his mother and two sisters, who still live in Haiti. He said this case hits close to home, as he has been unable to get a driver’s license while living in the state.

“Driving for me, it's more than a convenience,” he said. “It's about being able to be part of the community. And right now, I can tell you I feel excluded [from] the community because you're saying that I can't drive.”

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Saint-Hilaire lives in Greenfield, in Hancock County. He said this area is more rural and there is no transportation that is timely or cheaply available to him. Saint-Hilare said this often leads him to have to rely on others for rides.

“It’s been very frustrating because imagine that you have to go to work each day and you have to rely on the ride from co-workers, families and people, they have their own schedule and no one likes to wait for someone,” he said. “You want to be independent to be able to move around by yourself.”

He added a person’s ability to drive should not be dependent on their country of origin, but on their competence in learning the rules of the road.

“I have the ability to work. But you say I can't get to work,” Saint-Hilaire said. “So how can I participate in the advancement of my community? How can I afford to pay taxes or take care of my family if I can't drive and I have the ability to work?”

Attorneys for the BMV also argued that the state did not want to issue any more non-REAL ID options than necessary.

REAL ID’s are driver's licenses that fit within minimum security standards. REAL ID-compliant licenses will be required in 2025 to board flights, enter nuclear power plants, or enter certain federal facilities. The date for IDs to meet these compliance standards has been moved back for several years now.

Rose said this is not a valid argument for not issuing IDs to other immigrants, as non-REAL ID-compliant licenses will still allow immigrants to drive.

“They are never required to only issue Real ID options after March 2025,” he said. “They are still able to, and the Real ID Act is clear, they can still offer non-REAL ID-compliant driver's licenses. So even past then, there will be plenty of good reasons to ensure that all of us are able to drive and all Hoosiers are able to get their license even if they don't qualify for Real ID.”

There is not a clear timeline on when the judge will make a decision.

Violet is our daily news reporter. Contact her at vcomberwilen@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @ComberWilen.

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