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Correction to This Article
The article misstated the number of calls to the Motor Vehicle Administration's toll-free number for out-of-country appointments during the last three months of 2008. The number is 297,100.

Maryland Considers Change to Driver's License Policy Amid Fraud by Illegal Immigrants

Rented mailboxes at a Parcel Plus store in Rockville were used in driver's license fraud.
Rented mailboxes at a Parcel Plus store in Rockville were used in driver's license fraud. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Lisa Rein and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 28, 2009

No. 5284 Randolph Rd., in a Rockville shopping center, is a modest Parcel Plus store where small businesses rent mailboxes by the month. It's also the address used by at least 42 undocumented immigrants living in states along the Eastern Seaboard to fake a Maryland residence so they could get a driver's license, records show.

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Most of them got away with it, authorities say, evidence that Maryland -- the last holdout east of the Colorado Rockies in the nationwide effort to tighten rules on how states issue driver's licenses -- has become a magnet for illegal immigrants from Georgia to Delaware seeking driving privileges.

Along with New Mexico, Hawaii and Washington state, Maryland does not check the immigration status of drivers when they apply for a license. The policy has made the state vulnerable to widespread fraud by illegal immigrants living outside Maryland -- as well as to criminals seeking to create false identities -- according to court records and interviews with state officials.

And in some cases, state workers who issue licenses have run sophisticated schemes right out of Motor Vehicle Administration branches. Many of those employees have been successfully prosecuted.

Security is the chief concern cited by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and lawmakers as the General Assembly debates whether to require license-seekers to verify their lawful presence in the country. It's a change the Democratic-controlled legislature has resisted out of sensitivity to immigrants. But to comply with a federal law known as Real ID, the state must show this year that legal residents have access to a secure, nationally recognized license.

"This is not about immigration policy," said Maryland's motor vehicle administrator, John Kuo. "It's about the security of our identification card."

Immigrant rights advocates support a two-tiered system that would also comply with federal law by allowing newcomers without proof of legal status to get a limited license for driving -- but not to board airplanes, enter federal buildings or cross borders. O'Malley and other opponents say that wouldn't stop the fraud problem.

If it doesn't pass its own law, Maryland would be forced to meet an early deadline to put into effect other costly provisions of the Real ID law.

Kuo could not say how many undocumented immigrants from other states have obtained a Maryland license. But he noted that although there are at most 300,000 illegal immigrants living in the state, since 2006 his agency has processed about 350,000 licenses for drivers using foreign documents without U.S. visa stamps.

Maryland's license is considered so insecure that some states, including Colorado, Arizona and Oklahoma, no longer accept it as a proof of identity for relocating drivers.

Similar concerns have led the District to deny all out-of-state licenses as proof of identity. Virginia still accepts them.

MVA officials said it is relatively easy for illegal immigrants from other states to get a Maryland license. They must take a driving test, but they can prove their identity with a foreign driver's license or passport even if it lacks a U.S. visa stamp, along with statements from cellphone companies or banks. Such bills are also used as proof of a Maryland address -- and if you call a bank or cellphone company, they will change the address with no questions asked.


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