By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005
Applying for a driver's license in the area could become a more trying experience under immigration-related requirements, approved this week by Congress, that are expected to lengthen waiting lines at licensing offices and cost states, including Maryland and Virginia, millions of dollars.
Current and former Maryland transportation officials said that the changes probably would inconvenience drivers seeking to renew licenses through the mail and would turn front-desk clerks into frontline fact-checkers.
Motor vehicle officials would have to scan, store and verify such documents as bank account statements, phone bills and birth certificates before issuing a license. President Bush is expected to sign the bill.
"There are a lot of people scratching their heads, wondering how they are going to get this done," said John D. Porcari, who served as Maryland transportation secretary under Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "It is going to be an administrative nightmare."
The legislation, known as the Real ID Act, is intended to help stop suspected terrorists from entering the United States. The measure would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain licenses that the federal government will accept as identification.
But the Real ID Act also could affect drivers accustomed to renewing their licenses by mail or walking out of a Department of Motor Vehicles office with a license on the same day they submit an application.
"That is not going to happen in one day" if motor-vehicles offices are calling utility companies and checking out-of-state birth records, said Cheye Calvo, transportation committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Proponents of the legislation said U.S. security is worth the wait and the price tag.
"The problem is, you're only as strong as your weakest-link state,'' said Colleen Gilbert, executive director of the New York-based Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, one of the forces behind the measure. "Waiting an extra 20 minutes in line to make sure your ID is secure -- and everyone else's -- is well worth it."
Transportation officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District are reviewing the fine print of the new requirements.
"Budget issues, longer lines -- we don't know. That's speculation," said Janis D. Hazel, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. "If this comes into effect, we will address it in our next budget cycle."
Based on an earlier version of the bill, Virginia transportation officials estimated that it could cost as much as $237 million to maintain the current level of service.
"I can't offer a whole lot until we have gotten through that review, but we anticipate a significant impact to our agency operations,'' said Pam Goheen, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
For Maryland's 3.8 million motorists, there is an additional wrinkle. Maryland is one of nine states that do not require people applying for a driver's license to prove that they are not in the country illegally. Unlike Virginia and the District, Maryland accepts driver's licenses issued by foreign governments as proof of identification.
Under the new requirements, all applicants would have to present documents to prove that they are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants or visitors. Illegal immigrants could obtain a license for driving, but that document would not be recognized as identification to enter a federal building or to board an airplane.
In the short term, Maryland drivers seeking to renew their licenses probably would have to appear in person to present proof of legal U.S. residency, Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said. That step might eliminate renewals by mail, at least temporarily.
Last month, Maryland motorists spent an average of 36 minutes in line for services at Motor Vehicle Administration offices. Based on his initial reading of the measure, Flanagan said, "We would have concerns about the inconvenience to our customers from longer waiting lines and uncompensated additional cost to the state."
Outside the MVA office in Largo this week, more than three dozen people lined the sidewalk before the doors opened at 8:30 a.m. Drivers expressed concern about the cost, and the possibility of handing over copies of their financial records for a nationwide database.
"I always worry about government getting too deep into people's private lives," said Brian Fraiser, 45, a U.S. postal worker from Temple Hills. "It's not going to make me feel any safer."
Jamal Abuawad, a 36-year-old carpenter from Crofton, said: "More bureaucracy, more paperwork, more expensive for taxpayers."
Joseph Cribbs, a food services manager from Greenbelt, said Maryland should join other states in requiring proof of legal residency. After taking his 16-year-old daughter, Colleen, to apply for her first driver's license, Cribbs said, "We shouldn't be attracting security risks by having weaker laws."
The National Conference of State Legislatures, which opposed the Real ID Act, has estimated it would cost states $500 million to $750 million to train workers and upgrade computer systems to digitize documents and share information between the states and the federal government.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the bill's sponsor, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), said the amount is $100 million over five years.
"It's a very small price to pay for closing a large security loophole that we have with some states," said Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for Sensenbrenner.
Staff writers Timothy Dwyer and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.