O'Malley Backs Tougher Driver's License Law

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley backed legislation yesterday that would require drivers to prove that they are in the country legally to get a license, setting up a major clash with immigrant advocates who are pushing to preserve the state's policy of allowing undocumented immigrants to drive.

Maryland is one of only four states -- and the only one on the Eastern seaboard -- that does not check the immigration status of its drivers. Thousands of men and women who are not legal residents, many living in the Washington suburbs, use legal licenses as they drive to their jobs, pick up their children from school and buy groceries.

O'Malley and others who favor changing the policy to comply with federal law say illegal immigrants come to Maryland from as far away as North Carolina to seek licenses, overburdening the motor vehicle agency and in many cases getting fraudulent documents through the system.

The license debate has simmered in Annapolis since passage of the 2005 federal security law known as Real ID, which calls for a system of standardized licenses designed to enhance security. Opposition to the program's cost has prompted open revolt in many states. In Maryland, the law also cast a spotlight on immigration policy.

"The lawful presence is something every state is going to be required to have," O'Malley said yesterday.

At a hearing, the House Judiciary Committee debated a legal-presence bill and a competing one, also with broad support, that would allow undocumented immigrants to continue to drive but offer legal residents a separate identification card that would allow its holders to board commercial planes and enter federal buildings. Both would comply with the Real ID requirement.

The governor's position has evolved in fits and starts, with no shortage of debate within his administration. O'Malley, the great-grandson of Irish immigrants, who has hung a sign over his desk that says "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply," is sensitive to Maryland's growing population of immigrants, aides say.

His transportation secretary set a plan in motion last year to develop a two-tier system, but the governor publicly rejected it. Montgomery and Prince George's county lawmakers with large immigrant constituencies have lobbied the governor in the past two months to keep the current policy. But he apparently was not convinced that it made sense, given his concerns that Maryland is becoming a magnet for license-seekers.

The legal presence measure that O'Malley now supports has long been pushed by Republicans and conservative Democrats in the legislature.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he is confident that his chamber will side with the governor. "Because of the threat of terrorists who look upon the United States as the enemy, we have to be more vigilant with driver's licenses," Miller said, referring to some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, who used driver's licenses as identification when they checked in for their flights.

Transportation officials told the Judiciary Committee that Maryland should require a legal presence to protect its license system against growing fraud. Efforts to fight it "have not been enough to keep pace with the ever-improving quality of document fraud and growing criminal enterprises" that allow out-of-state illegal immigrants to get licenses, Motor Vehicle Administrator John Kuo said.

He described how 68 applicants to the agency's license program for foreigners gave the same Baltimore address to motor vehicle workers and how others used the addresses of FedEx and UPS stores. Other applicants paid someone $2,000 a week to keep a Maryland address for them until they got their licenses, Kuo said.

But advocates and some lawmakers said that denying licenses to thousands of drivers who now have them would push them to get on the road without a license or insurance. Kim Propeack of CASA of Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group, said unlicensed drivers are far more likely to be in fatal car crashes.

"Don't you want people to obey our traffic laws?" asked Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's). "Why in the world are we telling folks who are trying to be good Americans not to do so?"

Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari acknowledged the risks of unlicensed driving but said they exist today. He said the two-tier proposals would be overly costly and complicated.

States have until 2010 to begin complying with Real ID, although they can get extensions if they have laws requiring legal presence. When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was governor of Arizona, she criticized the law for the costs it imposes on states. But aides to O'Malley said Napolitano told him that the Obama administration does not plan to make changes to the lawful-presence requirement.

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