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Bill seeks to help foreign nationals obtain license

By John Commins and Laure C. Martin
The Chattanooga Times, April 19, 2001

Residents of other countries who study and work in the United States are driving here illegally because they cannot get licenses.

"It's scary," said Brad Pritts, who works at Esperanza Del Barrio, a Salvation Army mission in Chattanooga that serves Hispanics.

Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said thousands of documented foreign laborers and students living in Tennessee can't get driver's licenses. He is sponsoring a bill, expected to be voted on this week in the state Senate, that would make it easier for foreign nationals in Tennessee to drive legally.

"Until very recently, Tennessee did not require a Social Security number for a driver's license, but the federal government ... mandated that states require a Social Security number for people to get a driver's license," Sen. Kyle said.

He said the government mandate was part of an effort to locate fathers who were not paying child support.

Mr. Pritts said non-citizens don't have Social Security numbers.

"But this is a society where you can't be a functioning member without a car," he said.

Pastor Jimmy Betancourt, with Red Bank Baptist Church's Hispanic ministry, said he sees 15 to 20 new foreign nationals every week in jail because they were driving without licenses.

"And a lot of people who arrive at jail without a license are deported," he said. "The bill would help with the stability of the Hispanic community."

Sen. Kyle's bill would allow people living in Tennessee who have never had -- or who are ineligible for -- a Social Security number to file an affidavit with the state Department of Safety in order to get a driver's license.

Those people still would have to pass the written and road tests required of all motorists before they could be licensed. Similar laws have been enacted in many states across the nation, including Georgia and Alabama, Sen. Kyle said.

"In the agricultural community we have people come in on a seasonal basis," Sen. Kyle said. "They're asked to drive farm trucks and equipment. That's one of the reasons why the farmers tell me how supportive they are (of the bill)."

The bill unanimously cleared the House Transportation Committee. It passed the Senate Transportation Committee as well, although Sen. Jeff Miller, R-Cleveland, voted against it.

"I don't want us putting a stamp of approval on illegal immigration when you give them privileges that are normally reserved for citizens," Sen. Miller said.

Although he voted against the bill in committee, Sen. Miller said he might vote for it when it reaches the Senate floor.

"I'm still wrestling with it," he said.

Sen. Kyle said the bill would not prompt illegal aliens to come to Tennessee.

"This is not an immigration bill,'' Sen. Kyle said. "This is about the people in a car on the same streets with your family and loved ones.''

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