Illegal immigrants can soon apply for D.C. driver’s licenses

For a good chunk of last year, District lawmakers hashed out a law that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. The issue wasn’t so much whether to do it — there was consensus from Mayor Vincent C. Gray on down that the city should offer driving permits to all residents, regardless of immigration status — but rather how to do it.

Activists pushed for a “one license” approach that would grant the same license to all applicants, whether or not they could prove their status as legal residents, arguing that any differentiation would be a “scarlet letter” leaving some license holders vulnerable to harassment or legal peril. But lawmakers ultimately determined that the risks of that approach were too great, citing the requirements of the federal REAL ID Act, which requires the District to certify the legal status of license holders.

Now, with days until the city starts issuing the new “limited purpose” licenses, applicants can get a look at just how much of a “scarlet letter” they will bear. A mockup provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles shows that the “limited purpose” license is identical to the standard license, save for the inclusion of a small “NOT VALID FOR OFFICIAL FEDERAL PURPOSES” legend in the upper right-hand corner.


(D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles)

Compare that to the standard REAL ID compliant design, which was unveiled late last year:


(D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles)

“This is pretty much the best we could do,” said Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who had pushed for a unitary license scheme but backed off after the federal Department of Homeland Security warned that approach could leave even full-fledged D.C. license holders at risk of being barred from federal facilities and even airline flights. Nine states take a similar approach to issuing licenses to those of uncertain legal status.

Cheh said she explored several options for the “not for federal purposes” legend, including putting it on the back, but that was a nonstarter for the Homeland Security officials. “We tried to make it as benign as possible,” she said. “It sounds like what we agreed to, they carried out.”

District residents seeking a new “limited purpose” credential — which does not require proof of a social security number — can begin applying on May 1, using a foreign passport or consular card as proof of identification. They are required to make an appointment with the D.C. DMV to submit an application; walk-in applications will not be accepted.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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