Renewing a Hawaii driver’s license often involves a lengthy wait at the a Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Just imagine having to do that every year rather than every eight, as the law requires for most drivers.

That’s the case for a lot of Micronesians living in Hawaii who, along with their advocates, are pushing legislation to effectively give them the same driving rights as residents.

But they are up against federal law and a key state agency that opposes the bill. The state Department of Transportation warns that, if the law is changed, all Hawaii driver’s licenses might become worthless as identification for boarding commercial flights or entering federal facilities.

Micronesians and their advocates say that a state law requiring their driver’s licenses to be renewed annually is unfair. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

House Bill 2658 would amend the state law by which residents 25 to 71 years old are required to renew their licenses every eight years. Those under the age of 18 must renew every four years, while those 72 and older renew every two years.

The law currently states, “If the licensee is a legal immigrant, the license shall expire no later than the licensee’s authorized period of stay in the United States.” The words “period of stay” has meant that Micronesians, even though they are legal immigrants, must renew their licenses every year.

HB 2659 would add these words to that sentence: “provided further that this paragraph shall not apply to a person who is a citizen of a country having a valid Compact of Free Association with the United States and who provides proof of legal presence in the United States.”

The COFA treaty allows visa-free travel for residents of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia to the U.S. and its territories. Many relocate for health reasons, job opportunities and educational pursuits. Hawaii’s COFA population is estimated to be about 15,000 people.

“This bill is important because it removes a barrier for hardworking Micronesian residents who need support to continue contributing to our community,” said Jojo Peter, chairman of COFACAN, the Compact of Free Association Community Advocacy Network.

‘Burdensome And Unfair Barrier’

HB 2658 has received dozens of pages of written testimony in support.

“Imposing a one-year driver’s license renewal creates a burdensome and unfair barrier that has very real and disruptive consequences,” Dina Shek of Honolulu wrote.

Shek, who has worked closely with Micronesia communities in the islands, calls the one-year renewal “a tremendous wast of valuable state resources” and points to local TV news reports that waiting time at the DMV can reach five hours.

Jojo Peter came to the U.S. from Chuuk to attend the University of Hawaii. He says House Bill 2658 would help Micronesians in Hawaii contribute to the community. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“DMV officials report that the average appointment is taking three times as long as normal due to additional federal documentation requirements,” Shek wrote.

HB 2658 intends to model the example of the Oregon Legislature, which in 2013 changed its driver’s license renewal requirements to eight years for COFA migrants.

Other supporters of the legislation include the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, the Japanese American Citizens League and several groups that serve or work with Micronesians in Hawaii.

But the state Department of Transportation opposes the bill, arguing that it is in “direct conflict” with the federal REAL ID Act of 2005. The act requires state driver’s licenses and identification cards to be accepted by the Department of Homeland Security.

“Losing our compliance status would mean that Hawaii’s driver’s license would no longer be an accepted form of identification for the purposes of domestic commercial air travel and entrance to federal facilities,” the DOT said in testimony.

Two second-year students at the William S. Richardson School of Law, Taylor Brack and Andres Y. Gonzalez, disagree. They argue in their testimony that the federal law was not written with COFA migrants in mind.

“The Hawaii Department of Transportation, erring on the side of caution, has chosen to interpret the existing law in a way that disproportionately impacts COFA migrants in this state,” they wrote.

Rep. Henry Aquino, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, deferred the bill Friday, saying it needed more work. He declined further comment.

Decision-making on HB 2658 is scheduled for Wednesday morning. Should it pass, it heads to the House Judiciary Committee.

HB 2658 is co-authored by Reps. Della Au Belatti and John Mizuno.

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