AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – When he entered the United States illegally and became a citizen in 2011, Austin Mayor Steve Adler didn’t have a government-issued photo ID.
Then, in late 2014, the city began issuing new drivers licenses to the undocumented immigrants it helped hire.
He now has one, along with a green card and a green-card-like document that allows him to work and live in the United State without a visa.
But even as the city ramps up its efforts to integrate its undocumented immigrants, some immigration experts are questioning whether Adler is fulfilling the requirements for a valid driver’s license, even as he says he will not change his immigration status.
“I can’t give you an answer on that,” said David L. Miller, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“But there is a strong likelihood that, under the current immigration laws, if you are undocumented and are eligible for a license, you would not be issued a driver’s permit.”
Adler’s spokesman, David Weil, said Adler has “taken steps to prove that he is eligible for the license.”
Adlers office has not responded to requests for comment about the issue.
Lacking a driver license can be costly for undocumented immigrants and their families, as they must pay an annual license fee that can exceed $30.
It also can make it difficult for them to obtain jobs or to access social services.
For example, a person who lost their driver’s licenses because of the policy can be ineligible for public assistance, and they can also lose eligibility for state unemployment benefits if they are deemed to have “disability.”
But while many states require applicants to have driver licenses to gain access to public assistance or public benefits, Texas does not.
Adler said he has received no requests for assistance, which would be denied under state law.
“He’s trying to comply with the law,” Weil said.
“The Texas Department of Public Safety doesn’t enforce the law.”
The city’s new policies have been controversial among immigration rights advocates.
Weil and other advocates say they have documented instances where people who are undocumented are denied services and even denied their licenses.
But Miller said the city should not be penalizing undocumented immigrants for having driver licenses.
“People who are here illegally are eligible to get licenses,” he said.
The city has not had a single case of a driver being denied a license since July, he said, adding that the city was working to find out how many licenses are still outstanding.
Larger cities are increasingly using driver licenses for their undocumented immigrant workforce, he added.
“We know the drivers licenses are a big part of the employment opportunities,” Miller said.
Adlers campaign manager, Brian Rogers, said that Adler did not “understand” the policy at the time he signed on, and that the Austin Mayor’s office has “learned from this experience.”
The Austin mayor’s office is not required to provide details about the driver license requirements to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
But in a response to a question from the Dallas Morning News, Weil pointed to Texas law that says the state has “no obligation” to issue licenses to people who have been “improved eligible” for one.
He said the policy does not apply to people without documentation.
Adulators office is still in the process of figuring out how it will respond to Texas Secretary of State Carlos H. Regala’s request for information on the policy, Weill said.
If Texas does provide details, the agency will respond with a response within 72 hours, Weili said.
For now, the policy remains in place for Adlers city and county.
But some Texas immigration experts say the city’s policy could be in violation of the federal law that requires all federal government agencies to provide drivers licenses.
In response to questions from Reuters, Regala said in a statement that the federal government does not require state agencies to issue driver licenses, nor does the federal department require states to “enforce” the federal mandate.
“Federal law requires all states to comply and ensure that all citizens have the right to drive,” Regala wrote.
“If a state requires a license from the federal driver license office, that state must comply with this federal law, as well.”
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A federal judge last year ordered Austin to make changes to its driver license policy, including an emphasis on providing drivers licenses for all eligible undocumented immigrants.
The judge said the change should include a requirement for drivers to have a Social Security number, a state ID number, proof of citizenship, proof that they have a job, and proof of a financial need.
The City Council voted unanimously last year to change the policy.
The council also has been considering a proposal to add a “safe harbor” provision that would make it easier for drivers who don’t have driver’s permits to apply