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Legal immigrants battle red tape

I noticed that the Houston Chronicle article I was interviewed for isn’t available on the Chronicle website anymore, so I wanted to re-post it on my blog.

From the Houston Chronicle, Jan. 9, 2009:

Legal immigrants battle red tape

Pakistan native Adeel Mehmood started building a life in Houston after the U.S. government granted him asylum more than two years ago.

He graduated from the University of Houston, settled into a home in Garden Oaks and saved money from his restaurant job to buy his dream car: a new Toyota Camry.

The 25-year-old still faithfully makes payments on the Camry — and on his insurance — even though the state of Texas in December denied his application to renew his driver’s license, citing a new policy that took effect Oct. 1 requiring specific documentation to prove an applicant’s legal immigration status.

Three months after the policy took effect, critics are pointing to a growing list of cases involving legal immigrants who have been significantly delayed or outright rejected in their efforts to get or renew licenses, despite being authorized to live and work legally in the U.S.

“I have always maintained my legal status,” Mehmood said. “It’s not fair to people who want to live here and follow the law.”

Under the policy change, only applicants who have documents showing they have permission to stay in the U.S. for at least six months are eligible for Texas driver’s licenses.

But immigration attorneys are reporting that people who meet that criterion — but are unable to produce documents required by the DPS to prove their legal status — are still being turned away.

For example, Mehmood said he was rejected by the DPS after being told his letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granting him asylum wasn’t specifically listed on DPS’s list of acceptable forms.

The Texas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association is pushing for revisions to the policy, adopted by the Texas Public Safety Commission in August, saying the list of acceptable DPS documents needs to be expanded to include several forms of legal status that allow for a six-month stay or longer in the U.S. They also are pushing the state to make allowances for delays in processing times sometimes caused by USCIS.

“This is going to end up impacting lots and lots of people,” said John Nechman, a Houston immigration attorney. “Every day there seems to be another example.”

Designed to curb fraud

Supporters of the new policy, including Gov. Rick Perry, said the state is safer because of the more stringent document checks, which are designed to stop illegal immigrants from getting licenses and to combat fraud and identity theft. The agency has issued more than 15,000 “visitor” licenses to immigrants statewide since October, said Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman.

Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Public Safety Commission, which oversees the DPS, said the policy change was not intended to deny legal immigrants the opportunity to drive.

“If there is a problem in the process, then it should and will be addressed,” Polunsky said. “We have to look at all the facts before we make any changes, but certainly we want to be fair.”

D. Jackson Chaney, an immigration attorney in Irving, said the DPS did not consult any immigration lawyers or experts when it put together the rule and left out several forms of legal status that allow immigrants to stay in the country beyond six months. The list includes refugees as well as some immigrants who were granted green cards before those documents had expiration dates.

“They’re being denied licenses on ridiculous grounds, frankly, because DPS simply does not know immigration law,” Chaney said. “It’s really a mess.”

Drivers License [1]

Paperwork delay

In some cases, even though driver’s license applicants have immigration documents that appear to expire within six months, they may still have legal status from USCIS as long as they have a pending application for an extension, attorneys said. But it can sometimes take immigration officials six to 12 months or longer to process the paperwork, leaving applicants unable to drive legally for months at a time.

Mathias Ricken, a doctoral candidate and computer science instructor at Rice University, made four trips to the DPS office in November and December to get his temporary driver’s license approved.

Ricken, who is in the U.S. on a student visa from Germany, called ahead on Nov. 19 to find out what documents he needed, but each time he went to the office, he was asked for more. He eventually got approved for the license after presenting documents including: his Texas ID card, his German passport, three different immigration forms, a Social Security card, a certificate of enrollment, a tuition receipt and a signed and stamped letter from the director of Rice’s Office of International Students and Scholars.

The letter was not required, but Ricken thought it might help. “I think it’s right to require that you identify yourself in the proper way and show that you are in the country legally,” he said. “The problem is more in the details.”

Unusual case

The problem has turned into more than a nuisance for Mehmood.

His driver’s license expired in November. Mehmood has made multiple visits to DPS offices since then, each time carrying a thick three-ring binder of immigration documents and his work authorization.

Mehmood said he was told that his letter granting asylum and other immigration documents were not sufficient proof of his legal status. He also was told he was ineligible because his “I-94,” a standard U.S. customs form for foreigners, had no expiration date, which is common for asylees, who are allowed to stay in the U.S. indefinitely.

Mange, the DPS spokeswoman, said she would look into Mehmood’s case.

Note: I am a legal non-resident alien, not an immigrant.

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