By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is drawing up plans to issue separate driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and legal residents to comply with new federal security regulations, a proposal that could become a focus in the debate over illegal immigration in Maryland.
Top state officials began briefing lawmakers last week on a two-tiered licensing system similar to one that New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) proposed last fall but was forced to scuttle after a political battle. New York does not allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, and Spitzer wanted to change that.
Maryland is designing a plan for thousands of immigrants who have been receiving the same licenses as other drivers without having to prove that they are legally in the United States. Maryland is among eight states that allow illegal immigrants to get licenses.
Under a two-tier system, undocumented immigrants would have access to the license they can get now, which requires proof that they live in Maryland. But it could not be used to board airplanes, enter federal buildings or cross borders. A separate license would be issued to those who can show they are in the country legally. That would put the state into compliance with the federal Real ID security mandate, which is aimed at screening out potential terrorists and uncovering illegal immigrants.
Maryland officials say a two-tier system would address federal security concerns and help ensure highway safety, because undocumented motorists would have to get car insurance and pass a driving test.
"We ensure that Maryland motorists are licensed, and that enhances public safety," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D). "At the same time, Marylanders who have the highest form of identification can board airplanes and enter government buildings."
State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said the timing of Maryland's adoption of a new licensing system would depend on federal regulations issued Friday for implementing the Real ID program. Most states, including Maryland, have received extensions on a May deadline to have a plan in place.
Six states have refused to comply with Real ID, and legislatures in more than a dozen others have passed resolutions opposing it. Maryland officials said they have struggled to meet the mandate and balance the politics of immigration.
"We have a federal requirement," said Porcari, who recently briefed officials with the Department of Homeland Security on the licensing plan. "We know we have to comply with it. We intend to."
Porcari said some legal U.S. residents might opt not to get the license that would allow entry into federal buildings, as they might not be able to find original birth certificates or other documents to prove they are legal residents.
The plan has drawn criticism from immigrant advocates and opponents of illegal immigration.
"In this climate, that's a scarlet letter," Del. Ana Sol Guti¿rrez (D-Montgomery) said of a two-license system. She said she thinks it would tag its holders as illegal immigrants and make them vulnerable. "Any policeman could call [federal] authorities," she said. Guti¿rrez is one of the legislature's leading advocates for immigrants.
Guti¿rrez and Casa de Maryland, which helps immigrants find jobs and housing, are pushing a different system that would keep the current license but offer legal residents a federally valid identification card similar to a passport.
"We think the best system is to retain the license," said Kim Propeack, Casa's advocacy director. "We believe the vast majority of people will want to keep the system the way it is." She said many Maryland residents, such as older drivers and ex-felons, regardless of their immigration status, would be unable to comply with federal requirements or have little need to enter federal buildings.
Opponents of illegal immigration have fought unsuccessfully for Maryland to adopt a federally recognized driver's license since the Real ID law was passed in 2005. Last week, some said the O'Malley administration would do little more than elevate the status of undocumented immigrants by awarding them a special license.
"They're following the letter of the law, but they're ignoring the intent," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick). "The state is endorsing people to skirt the law. . . . Then Maryland becomes a haven for people that are here illegally."
Civil rights organizations and privacy advocates say that they are concerned that a standardized driver's license would amount to a national identification card and that a database with holders' information would be vulnerable to identify theft.
John T. Kuo, head of the state Motor Vehicle Administration, said his agency does not keep statistics on how many of Maryland's 3.9 million licensed drivers are not in the United States legally because state law does not require it to document immigration status.
"Our staff does not ask if someone is here legally, because that would be discriminatory," he said. However, as other states, including Virginia, have tightened the documentation required for a driver's license, Maryland has had a "surge in demand" for licenses from foreign-born residents, Kuo said.
About 2,000 foreign-born residents make appointments each week to present documents including foreign passports and marriage or divorce papers to get their driver's licenses. About 500,000 Maryland residents who do not drive have state identification cards.
Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and Washington state do not require legal presence in the country to get a driver's license, although Oregon and Michigan are moving to require it.
Porcari said Maryland is the first state to propose a comprehensive two-tier system.