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Md. Panel Stymied on Immigrant Licenses

Task Force No Closer To Clarifying Rules

By Nurith C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page B01

Some illegal immigrants would be able to obtain a Maryland driver's license under rules proposed by a state task force, but the panel has stopped short of recommending sweeping changes that would broaden access to driving privileges, members said.

The deeply divided task force resisted the strict approach adopted by Virginia and some other states, where immigrants cannot receive a license without proof that they are lawfully in the country. And the panel, in a report it will present by Dec. 1, recommends that certified school records be considered sufficient primary proof of identity for applicants 18 and younger -- essentially allowing children who grew up in Maryland to receive driver's licenses regardless of their immigration status.

But they rejected adding a variety of other foreign documents to verify identity, leaving Maryland no closer to clarifying its current, ambiguous system or resolving a question that has provoked debate across the nation.

"This is not an easy issue. . . . There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this," said Geoffrey S. Tobias, task force chairman.

Several panel members who favored expanding immigrants' access to licenses are preparing a minority report with alternative recommendations for the General Assembly to review when it convenes in January.

"We are very dissatisfied with the outcome of this effort -- it's been a really flawed process," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), a member of the task force. She called the latest draft of the majority's report "misleading, incomplete and inaccurate."

The task force sprang from legislation proposed in 2003 that would have established a detailed list of foreign documents as valid identification. Lawmakers ultimately agreed to study the matter.

Maryland has no law barring illegal immigrants from getting a driver's license. Rather, state regulations allow foreign-born applicants to prove their identity with two primary documents or various other forms of identification that could be available to illegal immigrants.

However, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Motor Vehicle Administration changed its practices and began requiring documents that only someone in the country legally would possess, such as a passport with a valid visa stamp. The result was to make it all but impossible for illegal immigrants to obtain a Maryland driver's license.

Last winter, after receiving complaints that its new policy violated state regulations, the MVA introduced an "exceptions process" under which a foreign-born applicant could present other documents for review by a senior document examiner.

Immigrant advocates say that the procedure is poorly publicized. They also contend that the agency's practices still violate state regulations -- which, for instance, do not specify that foreign passports must be accompanied by immigration stamps or documents to be considered valid.

These same advocates argue that many illegal immigrants are driving, often without a valid license or insurance to cover accidents. They say the roadways would be far safer if these immigrants submit to driving tests and buy insurance.

But others argue that driver's licenses have become a de facto national identity card, allowing the bearer to rent vehicles, board planes and buy weapons and explosives. Hence, tough restrictions are needed to ensure that terrorists do not obtain them, opponents say.

The 13-member task force studying the issue consisted of five members appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), with the rest drawn from the state Senate, the House of Delegates, the MVA, the Maryland State Police and the Governor's Office of Homeland Security.


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