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Bill would allow more foreign drivers in Michigan – if they can prove they’re legal

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It began with a concern raised by some Michigan companies: Some foreign visitors can’t drive with their foreign driver’s licenses, particularly those from China.

Could something be done in Lansing to clear the way for a Chinese executive visiting, say, Dow Chemical, to drive on his or her own?

The result was Senate Bill 501.

Its first reading was a straightforward fix that would allow foreign business visitors to drive in Michigan.

But as it moved to the second of three readings, something new was added: a requirement that the driver carry legal documentation to verify his or her legal presence in Michigan.

Some are worried that the bill is a dangerous step towards racial profiling, along the lines of Arizona’s 2012 “show me your papers” law.

Susan Reed, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, testified as neutral before the Senate on behalf of the Michigan Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. She tells us the original bill included some vague language regarding valid visitor visas that could lead to complications further down the line.

“I just made it clear in my testimony at that time that I would discourage wandering into that very complex territory of verifying legal status,” she says.

Despite her warning, Reed says it became clear that it was the intention to add the requirement that legal presence be verified for foreign drivers.

Noel Garcia is the chair of the Michigan Hispanic Latino Commission and a retired Lansing police officer. Garcia is concerned about the burden this bill would place on law enforcement.

“The big concern is roadside legal presence,” Garcia says. “When I see ‘roadside legal presence’ I see that as a challenge to law enforcement.”

He tells us law enforcement officers are “absolutely not” trained to verify legal presence at a roadside stop, a concern that the bill does not address.

“To be able to identify 75 different types of visas, to be able to walk away from that roadside traffic stop and say, ‘OK, I have confirmed legal presence,’ is a burden that I think is putting on law enforcement,” he says.

Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams explains there are individuals in Michigan, particularly family members of foreign nationals with work permits, who don’t have the ability to drive legally.

“The intent of the legislation was to help those people out and find a way to allow them to drive because they’re not residents in Michigan,” Woodhams says. “We’re continuing to work with our legislative partners to make Michigan friendly to visitors, students and business people, while also ensuring everyone on the roadway is driving safely and will face driving penalties when they’re not.”

Listen to our full conversation above.

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