Immigrant Driver ID Rejected by O'Malley

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) directed transportation officials to comply with the federal Real ID law.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) directed transportation officials to comply with the federal Real ID law. (By Rob Carr -- Associated Press)
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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Gov. Martin O'Malley rejected a proposal yesterday to issue separate driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and legal residents, saying that Maryland should comply with a federal security law by requiring immigrants to prove they are here legally before they can drive.

The governor's decision effectively reversed a long-standing policy that made Maryland one of only seven states that allow driving privileges for illegal immigrants. It came just days after his transportation secretary had briefed lawmakers on a proposed two-tier system that would have provided some latitude.

Instead, O'Malley (D) directed his top transportation officials to comply with the federal Real ID law by devising a secure, federally recognizable license that would be accepted as identification to board planes or enter government buildings.

"We should not allow Maryland to become an island virtually alone on the East Coast" by not requiring proof of legal residence for licenses, O'Malley said last night.

If approved by the General Assembly, O'Malley's plan would take effect in 2010. Maryland would join Virginia and the District in requiring a "lawful presence" of drivers.

Stunned immigration advocates accused O'Malley of pandering in a national election year.

"The administration is prioritizing political pandering over good policymaking," said Kim Propeack, advocacy director for Silver Spring-based Casa of Maryland, which helps immigrants find jobs and housing. The governor "is ignoring all the support he's heard over the years for the system as it exists," she said.

Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's), whose district includes many immigrants, said the policy change would upend life for thousands of Maryland residents. Calling O'Malley's proposal a "setback," Ramirez questioned how the parents of children born in this country could be denied permission to drive their children.

The debate in Maryland reflects rising national controversy over the issue. In New York, for example, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) proposed three license tiers in the fall but abandoned the system after a bruising political battle.

Six states have refused to comply with Real ID, and legislative bodies in some other jurisdictions that require "legal presence," including the District, have passed resolutions opposing it because of cost and privacy concerns. O'Malley said his administration has been wrestling the issue since "Day One" of his term and concluded that Maryland would have to comply with the federal mandate.

O'Malley's announcement yesterday represents a change in direction from months of planning by the Motor Vehicle Administration, which as recently as Friday had proposed creating two license tiers, one for people who can produce documents to prove their legal presence in the United States and one for those who cannot.

Some transportation officials said a two-tiered system also would comply with Real ID, addressing federal security concerns while encouraging undocumented immigrants to obtain car insurance and pass a driving test. But after Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and John T. Kuo, the motor vehicle administrator, briefed lawmakers extensively last week on the two-tier proposal, the O'Malley administration quickly distanced itself from it.

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