Currently certain foreign travelers, such as business executives, scientists, engineers, professors and international students – all of whom have been authorized by the federal government to be in the United States for a specific purpose and a specific period of time – are able to obtain temporary driver licenses from the Tennessee Department of Safety.
Now some state legislators are making it a priority to brand these people with prominent labels or symbols on their driver licenses and identification cards to distinguish that they are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.
SB 272/HB 222, sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers and Rep. John Ragan, will be heard next in the Senate Finance Ways & Means Committee and the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee.
This legislation tries to fix a non-existent problem. Temporary driver licenses are already clearly labeled “temporary” and it is easy to distinguish them from other driver licenses. While the bill’s sponsors have claimed that this legislation will prevent voter fraud, there is no evidence that such foreign travelers use IDs to try to vote. Not only did the state elections coordinator testify in committee that there are zero cases of voter fraud with a temporary driver license in Tennessee, federal courts have found that the “assertion that the ‘number of aliens on the voter rolls is likely to be in the hundreds, if not thousands’ is pure speculation.”(1)
This vaguely-worded legislation is not only unnecessary, it’s expensive. There are already numerous regulations in place for non-citizens to obtain temporary identification in our state. This bill does nothing to improve these regulations, and taxpayers don’t need to foot the $100,000 set-up fee for a confusing and unnecessary change to the process.
This bill could negatively impact Tennessee’s most promising industries and academic institutions. This kind of insulting, dehumanizing legislation would make it harder for Tennessee-based companies, hospitals and universities to recruit highly skilled workers, doctors and academics, whose work only improves our state’s reputation. It also sends the wrong message to foreign-owned companies that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our state. By threatening to brand people who have gone through the laborious process of securing competitive, hard-to-get visas with second-class status as soon as they arrive, this legislation risks Tennessee institutions’ ability to recruit the best and brightest.
Because this legislation has no compelling purpose, it serves only to send a strong message that people who weren’t born in the United States are unwelcome in Tennessee. Foreign visitors and immigrants alike are a crucial part of the state’s identity and economy, and this legislation sends the callous message that they are considered “others” here.
UPDATE: Action on this bill was deferred until 2018 in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
(1) Fish v. Kobach, 840 F.3d 710, 747-49 (10th Cir. 2016)