Use this button to switch between dark and light mode.

Ohio Federal Court Rules that Federal Immigration Law Preempts Ohio’s Driver’s License Policy Regarding Refugees

March 12, 2020 (6 min read)

A recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio holds that a policy by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) that prevented refugees with legal immigration status in the U.S. from obtaining Ohio driver’s licenses was unlawfully in conflict with federal immigration law. (An in-depth analysis of that case is available on Lexis Advance®. Not a subscriber? Click here.)


Gumaa Ismail Yahya Ibrahim and Badreldin Rahouma obtained refugee status to legally enter the United States in 2015 and 2004 respectively under federal immigration law, after facing persecution in their home country of Sudan. They received Form I-94 documentation as proof of their legal immigration status in the U.S.

But years later, when they applied for driver’s licenses in Ohio, they were rejected under a policy implemented by the Ohio BMV.

Under that policy, individuals holding a valid I-94 can obtain an Ohio driver’s license, but only if their I-94s are issued within two years of the license application. Individuals with I-94s older than two years cannot not use them to obtain a driver’s license without submitting additional documentation.

Because Ibrahim and Rahouma were admitted to the U.S. more than two years before they submitted their Ohio driver’s license applications, their applications were denied.

These denials led them and the Central Ohio-based Community Refugee and Immigration Services organization to file a class action lawsuit in October 2018 against the then-head of the BMV, Don Petit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

The lawsuit alleges that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit the BMV’s I-94 policy because the policy is an impermissible attempt by Ohio to regulate immigration status—which is the sole province of the federal government.

In July 2019, the plaintiffs filed a motion to certify the class, and in October 2019, filed a motion for summary judgment. Both motions came after the BMV’s motion to dismiss the case was denied in June 2019.

On February 20, 2020, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus, Jr. granted both of the plaintiffs’ motions in a decision published at Cmty. Refugee & Immigration Servs. v. Petit, 2020 U.S. Dist. 

LEXIS 29279 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 20, 2020). Judge Sargus held that the proposed class satisfied the required elements of a class under federal law. He also held that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the BMV’s policy was preempted by federal law.

Two days later, Judge Sargus entered an order enjoining the BMV from enforcing the policy.

The Tension Between Refugee Immigration Documents and Ohio’s Requirements for Driver’s License Applications

Under U.S. law, after one year of physical presence in the country, I-94 refugees may obtain lawful permanent residency status by filing an I-485 legal status adjustment application, obtaining a Form I-797 which serves as proof the legal status change was approved, and submitting a Form I-693 detailing their health and vaccinations. However, refugees need not apply for an adjustment of their legal status in order to legally stay in the U.S. Under federal law, their valid I-94s grant them indefinite refugee status.

The BMV’s policy requires refugees with I-94s older than two years to also present an I-797 in order to obtain a driver’s license. This, however, precludes those refugees from obtaining driver’s licenses unless they navigated the timely and costly process to obtain this additional document by securing an adjustment of their immigration status.

Ibrahim applied for a driver’s license in 2018 after applying for a green card in 2016. Two different BMV locations refused to issue her a driver’s license because her I-94 was more than two years old. However, in February 2019, after she had filed her lawsuit, Ibrahim was issued a valid driver’s license from the BMV.

Rahouma, the other individual plaintiff, applied for a driver’s license in 2010 and 2011, but was denied each time because her I-94 was more than two years old. After applying for adjustment in 2017 and receiving a notice of receipt in early 2018, Rahouma returned to the BMV to apply for a driver’s license. She was again denied because her I-94 was more than two years old. In June 2019, after she had filed her lawsuit, she obtained a valid Ohio identification card from the BMV.

In their lawsuit against the BMV, the plaintiffs claim that the Supremacy Clause “forbids states from making immigration classifications distinct from those of the federal government.” They argue that the federal REAL ID Act of 2005 allows individuals with refugee status—individuals with valid I-94s no matter when granted, like Ibrahim and Rahouma—to obtain state-issued driver’s licenses. Thus, they allege the BMV policy was preempted by federal law.

The REAL ID Act created standards for states’ driver’s licenses that federal agencies will accept for official purposes, such as boarding federally regulated airplanes and accessing federal facilities.

In its unsuccessful motion to dismiss, the BMV argued that its policy requiring additional proof of lawful status was simply an effort to comply with its requirements under the REAL ID Act.

Ohio’s Documentation Policy is Unlawfully in Conflict with Federal Law

In his decision, Judge Sargus first tackled the three plaintiffs’ motion to certify as a class, “all refugees residing in Ohio who possess a valid refugee 1-94 document that is more than two years old and have not yet adjusted their status to that of a lawful permanent resident.” The defendants did not oppose class certification.

Judge Sargus analyzed the requirements of a federal Rule 23(a) class—numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy of representation—and held that they were all satisfied by the proposed class and the plaintiffs. He also held that the plaintiffs satisfied the requirements of Rule 23(b)(2) because their allegations apply generally to the proposed class.

As to the motion for summary judgment, Judge Sargus first held that the plaintiffs had standing to bring the lawsuit. Putting aside Ibrahim’s and Rahouma’s standing, he held that Community Refugee and Immigration Services had standing on account of the resources it has used and continues to use “advocating for its constituents to get driver’s licenses and identification cards.”

On the substantive issue of whether there was a genuine issue of material fact, Judge Sargus quoted from his earlier opinion denying the BMV’s motion to dismiss. There, he held that the BMV’s policy that divides refugees into two groups based on when their I-94s were issued “impermissibly encroaches on the federal government's exclusive authority to make immigration classifications and determine immigration status.” Thus, Ohio’s “subclassification of immigration status . . . is preempted by federal law.”

Noting that the BMV had provided no evidence since the motion to dismiss was decided that supported an argument that its policy was not preempted, Judge Sargus held there was no genuine issue of material fact. Thus, the plaintiffs were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Guidance for Other States Implementing the REAL-ID Act

Judge Sargus’s granting of summary judgment against the BMV in this case, and his subsequent enjoining of its I-94 policy, is likely to get the attention of state motor vehicle departments across the country.

Those departments and their legal counsel will need to determine, in the wake of Judge Sargus’s decision, what kinds of proof of immigration status they can lawfully require before issuing REAL ID-compliant identification documents to legal immigrants.