D.C. Council backs away from issuing regular driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants

Illegal immigrants could begin applying for driver’s licenses next year in the District, but their IDs would be stamped as “not valid for official federal purposes,” creating a two-tier system of identification to comply with federal homeland security rules.

The plan marks a significant backtrack from legislation that a D.C. Council committee approved this year. That legislation would have challenged federal law by issuing licenses that looked like all the others to illegal immigrants.

The revised plan, which is scheduled to be voted on Tuesday by the council, now more closely resembles an initial proposal by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), as well as similar laws passed recently in Maryland and California that allow for specially marked driver’s licenses for residents who cannot prove citizenship.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, chair of the council’s transportation committee, pushed for no distinction among District licenses and is facing criticism from some immigrant rights groups for backing away from her earlier stand. They charge that by reworking the bill, she has bowed to federal pressure to mark immigrants with a “scarlet letter” under the George W. Bush-era legislation that could identify them as being in the country illegally.

But Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she saw little alternative after meetings in recent months with senior officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who told her that the department will begin enforcing the eight-year-old Real ID Act.

Under the act, residents in states that do not comply could have their licenses blocked from use as identification to enter federal buildings or to board commercial flights.

“I am reluctant to say that it was a negotiating posture, but in part, it was,” Cheh said of her committee’s earlier vote to issue immigrants regular D.C. driver’s licenses. “We were able to go into those meetings with DHS in the position to say that we may have a single license, and we question if you are serious about enforcement.”

Cheh said that in meetings, including one attended by Philip McNamara, chief of staff to the acting homeland security director, she was convinced it was not the time to challenge the federal law.

“They said quite plainly that their plan was to announce their rollout by the end of this year . . . and that they are going to have a rollout enforcement in 2014,” Cheh said of the meeting.

Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, did not dispute Cheh’s account of the meeting, which provided the first confirmation that DHS is still working toward enforcement of Real ID since all states were given at least a six-month reprieve from the law earlier this year.

In an e-mail, Catron said DHS plans to announce “the schedule for phased enforcement in 2013, and begin implementing it soon thereafter.”

The Real ID Act originated with a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission and directs DHS to establish minimum requirements for state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards. It prohibits federal agencies from accepting for official purposes licenses and IDs from states that fail to meet those minimum requirements.

In December, DHS said 13 states were in compliance and issued a temporary extension to other states and the District of Columbia. Since then, the number of states in compliance has risen to 20, according to the department.

Maryland is among those in compliance. It will begin issuing special licenses to illegal immigrants in January. Enforcing Real ID remains complicated in a handful of other states, including New Mexico, which had issued licenses to illegal immigrants before the act in 2005.

Cheh said she is still pursuing the most “benign” way to comply with the law, putting the “not valid” lettering, for example, in the “smallest font” possible on the license, and ensuring that the data held by the District’s motor vehicle department that could identify non-citizens would be kept confidential.

Regardless of whether the licenses are marked, issuing them for residents who are in the country illegally is the right thing to do, she said.

“It’s a question of safety,” Cheh said. “Those without documentation are driving anyway. They are not taking a test. They are not passing a test. And if they buy a car, they are not purchasing insurance.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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