Driving in the United States
The Roadblocks Foreign National Employees and Families have to Maneuver to Obtain Valid Driverís Licenses
In the wake of the events of September 11, some states are changing policies governing how non-U.S. citizens obtain driverís licenses. Many of these changes have had a significant impact on the lives of foreign national employees and their families who are legally in the United States. These employees and their families must be able to drive to function in most parts of the United States — to shop for groceries, take children to school, go to doctorís appointments and to go to work. Their inability to obtain driverís licenses frustrates employees and negatively impacts the success of international assignments at some or Americaís leading corporations. ACIP has been following the changes in regulations on behalf of our members and we have received more complaints on this issue in the last six months than on any other immigration issue we track. Following are major areas of complaint.
Social Security Number Requirements. Several states require applicants for driverís licenses to provide a Social Security number (SSN). The Social Security Administration (SSA), however, no longer issues SSN’s to those who do not have employment authorization. This is a problem for the spouses and driving-age children who accompany international employees to the United States because, for the most part, they are not eligible for work authorization. Some states, like New York, will accept a letter from the SSA stating that the applicant is not eligible for a SSN, while others accept an Individual Taxpayer ID Number (ITIN). Others, like Illinois and Alabama, do not provide such accommodations. We are currently waiting for a letter of opinion from the Illinois Attorney Generalís office as to the possible acceptance of an ITIN, or some new class of identification number, in lieu of social security numbers.
Matching Driverís License/Visa Expiration. Several states, like Florida, Arizona and New Jersey, have enacted policies requiring that all driverís licenses given to nonimmigrants have the same expiration date as that personís nonimmigrant visa. Other states, like Massachusetts, have considered implementing such a policy. U.S. Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has also introduced federal legislation† (H.R. 4043) that would require all states to adopt this policy. The implementation of such a policy poses several concerns for ACIP members and their employees.
Misunderstanding of Immigration Documents. The question of when a ìvisaî expires is far more complicated than originally contemplated.† Several documents, including a visa stamp, INS forms I-797 and I-94, and Employment Authorization Document cards may be relevant to determining status. Even immigration experts sometimes have difficulty determining status for certain classifications of nonimmigrants. Motor vehicle department personnel are thereby given the task of interpreting immigration law and policy. ACIP members have reported situations in which foreign nationals were denied driverís licenses, asked for documentation that they do not have or need, given the wrong type of license, or were treated unfairly due to misinterpretation of policy on the part of motor vehicle office personnel. At a minimum, efforts to implement this type of policy must come with intensive training.
Extensions of Status. Due to backlogs at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), it is very likely that even an individual who applies in a timely fashion for an extension of stay in the United States will not receive approval of that extension until after the expiration of their I-94. This means that although these individuals are legally allowed to remain in the United States while they wait for this approval, they would be unable to drive in the interim. Arizona will issue temporary driverís licenses in this situation if there is proof that extension of status has been applied for, while Florida and New Jersey will not issue another license until the actual approval notice is presented bearing the new expiration date. With INS backlogs, this can take months.
Length of Stay Requirements. A number of states, including New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, will not grant driverís licenses to nonimmigrants that are authorized to stay in the United States for less than a year. There are many reasons why an employeeís assignment may last for less than a year, but these individuals need to drive nonetheless. There was a case in New York State where a Chinese trainee in the United States on a J-1 visa was only authorized to stay for 6 months because that was the length of her training. This person lived in a part of the state where there was no easy access to public transportation and she did not have a Chinese driverís license, which means that she did not have the option of driving on a valid foreign license.
Strict Documentation Requirements. Many states have streamlined the list of presentable documents acceptable for driverís licensing purposes.† Unfortunately, there are classes of visa holders who find that the documentation they hold is not on their stateís list of acceptable identification for driving purposes, even though that same documentation met the requirements for U.S. entry. For example, spouses and dependents of foreign workers in New York State find it very difficult to obtain a state driverís license because many pieces of acceptable documentation are given to those with work authorization, and most of these individuals are not authorized to work in the United States. In Virginia, some international employees do not have the documentation listed as acceptable documentation.It is necessary that states reexamine these requirements.
International Driving Permits and Foreign Licenses Most states allow foreign nationals to drive for a period of time by using either their valid foreign driverís license, or by using that same valid license along with an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP translates foreign licenses into English so American law enforcement officials are able to understand the terms of that license. Though this is an alternative for some international employees who have to drive but are ineligible for driverís licenses in the states in which they work, this raises problems for others.
- There is also a question as to how long individual states allow foreign nationals to drive using foreign license. Pennsylvania will not grant state driverís licenses to nonimmigrants authorized to stay in this country for less than a year, so the state allows these individuals to use their foreign licenses for up to a year. It would be helpful if all states had defined guidelines on this, as it would be easier to advise those ineligible for state licenses of their options.
- As mentioned in the last example, there are international employees who are not licensed to drive in their home country, but find it necessary to be able to drive during their stay in the United States.
- Many American insurance companies choose not to insure drivers who use foreign licenses, or charge higher rates to those that they will insure.