Letter from the Executive Director, Refugee and Immigration Services

CRIS, ABLE win big on state IDs for refugees, immigrants

In a significant legal victory, U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Sargus has enjoined a state Bureau of Motor Vehicles policy that denied state driver’s licenses to certain groups of refugees. The policy was preventing hundreds of refugees from receiving their licenses and Ohio identification cards if they had been in the U.S. for more than two years, but had not yet obtained their green cards.

Our members at Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS) were among the plaintiffs on the lawsuit, which was filed in 2018 by Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE).

Concurrently and in the same U.S. District Court, ABLE prevailed in a separate lawsuit challenging another Ohio BMV policy that restricted drivers’ licenses to U.S.-citizen and documented minor children of undocumented parents.

To learn more, I reached out to ABLE’s attorney on the case, Emily Brown, who underscored the importance of accessing an identity card or driver’s license is–not only in accessing a range of services, but in getting a job, participating in activities with children, and so much more.

“This is an important step to ensure immigrants have the right to participate fully in civic life just like any of us,” she said. “Going forward, we’re hopeful that the BMV will pay increasing attention to making sure that immigrants are being provided with access to licenses and ID cards to the fullest extent required by the law. Certainly, these aren’t the only groups of people having difficulty getting licenses–we want to make sure this is one step in a broader effort to make sure people are getting their licenses and ID cards.”

Indeed, barriers to obtaining state IDs make it harder for the breadth of our membership to serve their clients no matter their citizenship status. I spoke with some social workers to get a fuller sense of those challenges, which are often intertwining and always frustrating. Here’s what I’ve gathered.
Many clients come to our agencies without any identifying paperwork at all: No social security card, no birth certificate, and certainly no state ID. In these circumstances, it’s hard to know where to start. But most ameliorative efforts begin with requesting a new birth certificate, which means our agencies are navigating 50 sets of rules and fees and wait times across all 50 states. Some states take as long as nine months to send birth certificates to their recipients. And some states require you to provide a piece of identification in order for you to get a birth certificate– but you can’t get a state ID without a birth certificate.

And we’re just getting warmed up.

To get a state ID from the Ohio BMV, you need something to prove your social security number. And Ohio only accepts three documents to prove this: your social security card, a W2 form, or a 1099 form. If you don’t have any of those three things, you are out of luck.

If you are fortunate enough to collect all the documentation you require, however, new obstacles await.

First: You have to pay $7.50 to get your state ID.

Second: State IDs are now mailed. This is a problem because many of our agencies’ clients do not have mailing addresses.

And if you manage to navigate all those hurdles, you still have to wait: This whole process takes a long time, and requires the cooperation of a lot of people–often across state lines. In the interim, without an ID, our agencies’ clients can’t get Medicaid, can’t get a job, can’t get public housing, and can’t get subsidized housing.

And if you’re an immigrant, it’s many times more complicated.

So today, I’m delighted we can celebrate a legal victory removing a significant barrier thanks to the leadership of our members at CRIS and the work of our friends at ABLE.

But we have much yet to do in tearing down even the most basic of barriers for our agencies and the people they serve.