What Immigrants and Refugees Need to Know about the New Tennessee Driver's License and "Certificate for Driving" Law

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What Immigrants and Refugees Need to Know about the New Tennessee Driver's License and "Certificate for Driving" Law


By: Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition

Date: June 28, 2004

Source: Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition

About the Author: The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition is a statewide, immigrant and refugee-led collaboration whose mission is to empower immigrants and refugees to develop a unified voice, defend their rights, and create an atmosphere in which they are viewed as positive contributors to the state.


The state of Tennessee began awarding full driver's license to illegal immigrants in early 2001 without requiring a social security number. More than 180,000 people obtained licenses before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted national security fears about proof of identity. In July 2004, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen launched an initiative to grant driver's certificates to the state's immigrants rather than driver's licenses as both national security and road safety measures. The governor wanted to ensure that immigrants were familiar with traffic rules.

Tennessee became the first state to issue certificates, although Utah soon followed. Both undocumented and legal immigrants were eligible for the certificates. During the two year's of the programs existence, Tennessee issued 52,000 certificates. To obtain certificates, applicants were required to provide two documents that showed they lived in Tennessee, such as a utility bill or a lease. They also had to provide a Social Security number or a sworn affidavit if they did not have a Social Security number. They were required to pass a vision test, a driving rules test, and a road test.


On May 29, 2004, Tennessee enacted a new law that changed the eligibility requirements for immigrant and refugee applicants for driver's licenses. On July 1, the Department of Safety will begin issuing the new "Certificate for Driving" to certain immigrants who will be ineligible for a regular driver's license under the new law. The purpose of this document is to clarify the new eligibility requirements and inform immigrants and refugees of their rights vis-à-vis the Department of Safety and law enforcement. The enclosed complaint form will help TIRRC document instances of misapplication of the law and assist individuals who have been unfairly denied a driver's license or driving certificate, or who believe that their rights have been violated as a result of possessing a driving certificate. The contents of this document are as follows:

1. What are the new requirements for immigrant and refugee applicants for driver's licenses/driving certificates?

Legal permanent residents (green card holders), refugees and asylees will continue to have access to a regular five-year driver's license. However, they will now be required to provide documentation of their status in addition to their social security card. In addition to proof of identity and proof of Tennessee residence, you will need to show one of the following documents:

INS I-55I Permanent Resident Alien Card

Foreign passport stamped by the U.S. Government indicating that the holder has been "Processed for I-55I"

Permanent resident Re-entry Permit (1-327)

Temporary I-55I stamp on Form 1-94, Arrival/Departure Record, with photograph of the applicant

U.S. Department of Receptions and Placement Program Assurance Form (Refugee) and I-94 stamped refugee

Form I-94 Record of Arrival and Departure stamped Asylee, Parolee or Parole, refugee, asylum, HP (humanitarian parolee) or PIP (public interest parolee)

Undocumented immigrants and nonimmigrants (temporary workers/students/visitors) will—as of July 1, 2004—no longer be able to obtain a regular driver's license. They can apply for a driving certificate—which will not be valid for identification—if they present two documents that prove their identity and two documents that prove they live in Tennessee….

Please note that if an individual from one of these two categories (undocumented immigrant of visa holder) currently has a license, they can continue to use the license until it expires. Upon renewal, this individual will only have access to a driving certificate. For undocumented immigrants the driving certificate will be valid for one year. For nonimmigrants, the driving certificate will be valid until the expiration date of your visa, unless your visa is valid for less than one year, in which case the certificate will be valid for one year.

2. Will auto insurance companies accept the certificate for driving in lieu of a regular driver's license?

Although several insurance companies have indicated that they may insure drivers with driving certificates, none of them have made public statements to this effect. We expect this question will be answered after the first certificates are issued.

3. Will law enforcement accept the driving certificate as identification if I am stopped for a traffic violation?

According to the law, the driving certificate may be used for driving purposes only, and will not be valid for identification. It is still unclear whether or not the driving certificate will be accepted as ID by law enforcement for traffic violations. While some departments such as the Nashville Police Department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol have stated that they will accept the certificates as ID in these cases, other departments have not clarified their positions. In a situation where law enforcement does not accept the certificate as ID it could result in the arrest of those driving certificate holders who are stopped for a traffic violation if they do not have another valid form of ID. Until this issue with law enforcement is resolved, we recommend that certificate holders carry another form of ID, such as a passport if they possess one, while driving.

Important Note: We understand that many certificate holders may not have another form of ID, and we are actively working to address the problem of traffic violation procedures for these individuals. In the meantime, we recommend that immigrants who no longer qualify for a driver's license obtain and carry the driving certificate. Such individuals are more likely to be arrested for driving without a certificate than for driving with a certificate but no additional ID, and the former carries a more substantial penalty. If you learn of someone who has been arrested simply for driving with a certificate, please call the toll—free number below so that we can get him/her in contact with a legal advisor.

4. What is the position of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) regarding the new law?

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) believes that the best law for Tennessee is one that ensures access to driver's licensees for all Tennesseans. We are wary of the concept of a driving certificate, and are concerned that those who obtain the driving certificate will suffer discrimination simply for trying to obey the law.

TIRRC also believes that in order for the driving certificate to accomplish its purpose, immigrants must be able to use it without fear of being arrested. Therefore we urge the Bredesen administration to take action to ensure that law enforcement throughout the state will not arrest certificate holders solely because they have no other form of ID. The driving certificate is a statewide document that requires a consistent statewide response. We fear that leaving the decision of whether or not to accept the certificate as ID in the hands of local authorities will lead to abuses of the law and mistreatment of certificate holders. TIRRC will continue to pressure the administration to address this problem, while at the same time working with local law enforcement throughout Tennessee to encourage them to accept the certificate as ID on the road. Our success will depend on the help of individuals from across the state.

5. What should I do if I encounter problems or discrimination?

Since the law became effective at the end of May, TIRRC has already received several complaints from individuals who provided the proper documents but were denied a driver's license. This problem is likely to continue as staff at the driver's license station have not been thoroughly trained to recognize different kinds of immigration documents. We expect additional issues to arise, particularly regarding law enforcement procedures for driving certificate holders, after the Department of Safety begins issuing the certificates in July. In anticipation of these problems TIRRC has initiated a comprehensive outreach campaign to deal with confusion about the new requirements and identify unfair treatment/discrimination of immigrants associated with the driving certificate. As part of this effort we have established a toll-free hotline to register complaints and assist individuals in getting their driver's licenses and driving certificates. We have also developed and translated into various languages a complaint form to be used to document any type of problem or discrimination an individual believes they have encountered.

Potential complaints include the following:

An applicant provided proper documents for a driver's license or driving certificate and was rejected.

An applicant for a driving certificate was treated poorly by a driver's license testing station employee.

A certificate holder was treated unfairly by a law enforcement officer after showing his/her certificate.

A certificate holder was arrested by a law enforcement officer after showing his/her certificate….


The certificate program became a magnet for fraud when other states accepted the certificates as legal identification. Several of the September 11 hijackers used Virginia identification documents. This fact led to concerns that identification documents could be used by subsequent terrorists. While Tennessee attempted to address this concern, it did not devise an acceptable solution. The Tennessee Department of Safety suspended the certificate program on February 24, 2006, after a federal investigation found that rings were shuttling South and Central American immigrants with fake residency papers from as far away as New Jersey and Georgia to state licensing centers in Knoxville and Murfreesboro to take advantage of the program. Several state license examiners were convicted of accepting bribes for certificates and sentenced to prison terms. The state legislature stepped in to remedy the program's faults, with several legislators arguing that the program should be abolished as a national security threat.

The program was then reinstated in March. Legal immigrants were issued driving certificates valid for the period of their authorized stay, provided it is not less than one year or more than five years. Any immigrant who is not in the country legally is prohibited from being issued a certificate. The state legislature, as of mid-2006, is considering issuing driver's licenses to legal immigrants and abolishing the certificate program. The problem of how to provide identification to legal residents of the U.S. without providing a cloak to terrorists remains unresolved.



Garfinkel, Simson. Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the Twenty-First Century. Sebastopol, Calif.: O'reilly Media, 2001.

Harper, Jim. Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2006.

O'Harrow, Robert. No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Web site

Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition. "Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition." 〈http://www.tnimmigrant.org/〉 (accessed June 21, 2006).

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What Immigrants and Refugees Need to Know about the New Tennessee Driver's License and "Certificate for Driving" Law

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