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Driver's License Curtailed as Identification

Critics Call 'Real ID' Issue Forcefully Anti-Immigrant

By T.R. Reid and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page A03

WEST VALLEY, Utah -- In the two years since she got her Utah driver's license, Guadalupe Camarillo notes with obvious pride, she has had no accidents, no moving violations and no parking tickets. "I drive so careful, I've never even been stopped," she beams.

But Camarillo is about to lose her license. The cleaning woman from Michoacan, Mexico, is among tens of thousands of illegal immigrants whose licenses will be voided under a state law that took effect March 8.

Hispanics object to Utah replacing driver's licenses of undocumented workers with driving privilege cards. (Ravell Call -- Deseret Morning News Via AP)

A precursor to the "Real ID Act" pending in the U.S. Senate, the Utah law gives undocumented workers such as Camarillo "driving privilege cards" instead of licenses. The document authorizes driving but declares in bold red letters that it cannot be used as legal identification.

Many Hispanics, including U.S. citizens, are outraged by the change. "You work hard, you pay the same taxes as anybody else, but the state legislature brands you as second-rate," noted veteran activist John Florez of Salt Lake City. "I'm sorry to say it, but the real point here is racism."

Responds state Sen. Curtis S. Bramble (R), who sponsored the new state law: "Tell me how granting a privilege to somebody who is here illegally can be called punitive. We are letting people drive. They can get [auto] insurance. But they can't use this card to buy firearms or serve on a jury or vote. Those are rights for citizens."

The restrictions that undocumented immigrants face in Utah could be felt nationwide if Congress passes the Real ID Act. The legislation cleared the House in February and faces debate on the Senate floor that may begin this week.

The legislation would compel states to painstakingly verify documents submitted for driver's licenses -- birth certificates, utility bills, Social Security numbers and other records -- in an effort to prevent terrorists from obtaining the papers they need to blend into society. But it also would affect undocumented immigrants, such as Camarillo, who lack green cards or visas, yet hold jobs.

The legislation would also authorize completion of a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in San Diego and make it more difficult for asylum seekers to gain citizenship. In effect, critics say, the Real ID Act would be the nation's most powerful anti-immigrant legislation in decades.

Its sponsor, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), said Real ID is an effort to adopt some of the recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The panel found that terrorists had studied the asylum process and driver's license fraud as ways to enter and move freely about the United States.

While the Bush administration has expressed support for the Real ID Act, White House officials are concerned that debate over the issue on the Senate floor could stall the higher-priority spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to which the House legislation is attached.

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) wants to protect illegal immigrant farmworkers by granting them permanent citizenship. His proposal could lead to a flurry of other amendments and spark a wide-ranging debate on national immigration policy, taking time from the war bill that is a higher priority for the White House.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said he supports Real ID in its current form, but he acknowledged that many colleagues do not. Cornyn and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) announced last week that they plan to craft legislation to address their own immigration concerns: border security and a guest-worker plan that would grant limited amnesty to illegal immigrants who currently work in the United States, which President Bush has endorsed.

More than 600 organizations oppose the proposed act for a variety of reasons, including the costs of carrying it out and its potential impact on asylum seekers.

The 9,000-member American Immigration Lawyers Association said the act could close the borders to asylum seekers. One aspect of the Real ID legislation would require immigrants seeking asylum to prove claims of persecution, preferably with documentation, a tall order for people who were in hiding or running for their lives, lawyers said.

"The changes will make it difficult for honest refugees to win their cases but easier for people with bad intentions and a lot of money," said Patricia Lyman, director of Just Law International. "People who have a plan to game the system, who will plan ahead and get every document under the sun, they'll be prepared. Someone truly fleeing a country can't get reports."

Opponents such as the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and the Council of State Governments said the law would be too expensive to implement and might lead to chaos at motor vehicle bureaus.

Cheye Calvo, director of the transportation committee for the conference of state legislatures, said state employees who issue driver's licenses would have to contact vital records employees at 30,000 offices nationwide to verify documents "in real time," forcing long waits for license applicants. About 70 million people apply for state-issued identification, mostly driver's licenses, each year, according to the conference.

The legislatures organization estimated that implementing the reforms would cost between $500 million and $700 million over the next five years. States would be required to create licenses with tamper-free features such as digital photos, watermarks, bar codes and possibly magnetic strips. They would also be required to buy equipment to read the licenses, equipment that allows law enforcement agencies in different states to communicate, and find space to warehouse drivers' documents.

Residents of states that decline to participate could not use driver's licenses as identification to board airplanes, apply for Social Security and veterans benefits, or complete tax documents for employers.

Jeff E. Lungren, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, called the cost estimate "preposterous." He said the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of about $100 million over five years is fair.

Lungren said Real ID would make the public safer. "If you read the 9/11 report, they highlight how al Qaeda studied document fraud and other vulnerabilities in the system," he said. "They undertook the risk and effort to get valid U.S. driver's licenses and state I.D. cards . . . because they allow you to fit in."

In Utah, undocumented workers and their support groups have expressed bitter opposition to the new driving cards, but it is not clear so far what the practical differences will be. Camarillo, for example, said that her boss, her landlord and her neighbors know she is in the United States illegally, but they do not seem to care.

The cleaning firm she works for employs 14 women, "and all of us are illegal," she said. "The boss knows that." Although Camarillo, 47, has no Social Security number, her employer withholds $225 per month for Social Security, Medicaid and income taxes.

"So I am pay[ing] the same tax," she said. "Why I don't get the same license?" Her auto insurance company assured her, she said, that the driving card will have no impact on her coverage.

On her annual trip to Mexico, Camarillo said she does not need any Utah identification because the airlines accept her "matricula consular," an ID issued by Mexico to nationals living in the United States.

Still, immigrants say, the loss of a driver's license introduces new uncertainty into lives marked by fear of deportation.

"The cop, he stop you, and he know you are illegal," said Milton Rodriquez, a Guatemalan who works as a lawn-cutter in Salt Lake City and is currently contesting a deportation order. "Then, what happen to you?"

Immigrant groups also question why lawmakers focused on undocumented workers and not their employers. Even Bramble, the senator who sponsored the "driving privilege" law, agreed that "we probably need to have that discussion, about whether there should be some sanction against those who employ the illegals."

As in many states, illegal workers without visas play a key role in Utah's economy, particularly in the vital tourist industry.

"It used to be that a town like this could find ski bums who would wait tables and sweep floors in return for a season lift pass," noted Shelley Weiss, the diversity outreach coordinator for the police department in the resort town of Park City. "But that culture is gone now."

Fears reported from Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company