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.
The governor accused the Bush administration yesterday of failing to secure the country's borders and trying to "bootstrap" a national ID system onto state driver's licenses. But he said he is not willing to risk having Maryland become a haven for undocumented immigrants from other parts of the eastern seaboard.
"We'd become an attraction to people who feel they can easily obtain a license through fraudulent means because they have one less thing to prove," he said. He said that there are public safety concerns about immigrants who would drive without insurance or a license but that he and other governors have been backed into a corner by federal policy.
Porcari had briefed the governor and officials with the Department of Homeland Security on a two-tier plan. But yesterday, Porcari told a Senate committee that the "national landscape" is changing, with Oregon and Michigan announcing plans to impose a legal presence mandate.
"That was premature," Kuo said yesterday of the two-tier proposal.
Lawmakers appear divided on the issue, with some who represent districts with large immigrant populations defending the current policy and Republicans and more conservative Democrats less tolerant of illegal residents.
Yesterday's announcement satisfied Republican lawmakers, who have pushed in vain to pass tougher immigration measures in recent years, even when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor.
"When you've got a New York governor getting clubbed over the head for trying to institute what Maryland has . . . you realize we are out of sync with the rest of the nation," House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) said.