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My Immigration Case is Still Pending. Can I Apply for a Texas Driver’s License? Documenting Lawful Presence as a Foreign National

29 Aug

The issuance of driver licenses is a state-issued benefit and therefore is governed by state law. This blog only addresses obstacles encountered by those without U.S. citizenship or permanent residency when applying for a Texas driver’s license. If you are unsure whether your immigration status allows you to apply for a driver’s license in Texas, consult a qualified immigration attorney who can advise you on your specific situation.

Let’s face it, getting a state driver’s license as a foreign national can be a real pain. It’s seldom swift and hardly ever straightforward. Many don’t know they are even eligible to apply for a driver’s license. However, with the recent surge in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) apprehensions and growing anti-immigration sentiment, having a state-issued form of identification with you may bring some piece of mind.

Here are a few things foreign nationals should understand when applying for a Texas driver’s license:

  • To qualify for a license in Texas, you must show “lawful presence.” Note that lawful presence is not the same as lawful status. It’s an important legal distinction allowing individuals that may not have lawful status, but can prove lawful presence, to potentially qualify for a Texas driver’s license. These individuals may be eligible to apply for a driver’s license by presenting one of the acceptable forms of documentation set by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). It’s important to note, all documents must be the originals and not copies.
  • Green card applicants can show lawful presence with an I-485 receipt notice. Those with a pending application to adjust status don’t need to wait for their employment authorization document to apply for a Texas driver’s license. To show lawful presence, an individual must present immigration documentation with an alien or I-94 number. The DPS policy manual goes on to state that “this can include but is not limited to a Form I-797 indicating pending I-485 or pending application for adjustment of status.” Green card applicants without a Social Security card or number must present proof they do not qualify for one. Most can satisfy this requirement by completing a Social Security affidavit provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
  • It’s not just individuals with a pending green card case who may qualify for a Texas driver’s license. Individuals in other pending immigration categories may apply for a license so long as they can provide immigration documentation that includes the following information: (1) First and last name; (2) date of birth; and (3) alien or I-94 number, such as a receipt notice for a pending extension, U visa application, or VAWA petition.
  • Manage your expectations: Don’t expect to walk out with a license the same day. DPS cannot issue a temporary license until it has first verified your immigration record through the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database. DPS often cannot verify just a receipt notice (and not approval) on the first attempt, so SAVE will likely proceed with the second stage of verification, which takes approximately 5-7 business days. If SAVE is unable to verify your information during the second stage, it will proceed to the third stage of verification, which could take up to 20 days. Each additional stage may require additional information from the applicant. 
  • Plan ahead. Apply at least 30 days before your license expires to allow for second- and third-level verification, if necessary. Remember that it generally takes a few weeks for U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) to issue a receipt notice for a pending case, so you should take this into account if you plan to renew your license with a receipt notice.
  • Get in line, online. If you aren’t already doing this, then pay attention because this will save you a lot of time. DPS allows customers to “get in line, online” through its website or by phone. This is only available at select DPS offices, so check the website for a list of eligible locations.
  • Do not rely on snail mail. Don’t wait for DPS to send you a letter notifying you that the verification process is complete. You can check the status of your driver’s license application through the Texas DPS website or over the phone 512-424-2600. You can also check the status of the SAVE verification process through the USCIS website or by emailing SAVE.help@uscis.dhs.gov.