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Drivers in Dilemma As Md. Shifts Gears On License Policy

Antonio Aleman and his son Oscar, from left in mirror, talk to their cousin Luis Ventura, a legal immigrant. "If I have to drive around without insurance, it's dangerous for me as well as other people," Antonio Aleman says.
Antonio Aleman and his son Oscar, from left in mirror, talk to their cousin Luis Ventura, a legal immigrant. "If I have to drive around without insurance, it's dangerous for me as well as other people," Antonio Aleman says. (By Dominic Bracco Ii For The Washington Post)

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By Lisa Rein and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 5, 2009

As many as 350,000 licensed Maryland drivers might soon face a seemingly impossible choice that could upend daily life for their families and gum up the gears of the local economy: Stop driving or get behind the wheel illegally.

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They're illegal immigrants but not illegal drivers. They've been carrying licenses endorsed by Maryland governors and lawmakers for years, thanks to policies shaped with a sensitivity to newcomers and a belief that state-certified drivers are safer drivers. But the General Assembly is shifting course to comply with a federal security law that requires states to issue licenses only to lawful residents.

Lawmakers are debating whether undocumented immigrants who have licenses should lose them or be eligible for a second-tier driving permit that would prevent them from boarding commercial flights or entering federal buildings. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he will sign either a bill that keeps them in the system or stops it entirely.

Either way, as soon as June 1, illegal immigrants in Maryland will likely face new obstacles in their ability to move around, a change with implications for motorists across the region. Since 2006, the state has processed about 350,000 licenses for drivers using foreign documents without U.S. visa stamps. Supporters of the change say the security of Maryland's license, which has been vulnerable to widespread fraud, is their overarching concern.

As the debate in Annapolis has trickled out through word of mouth and Spanish-language media, a sense of alarm and anxiety has spread to immigrant motorists.

"I work from 8 to 5:30, and then I have to rush to get to class," said Beatriz Aleman, 18, a Prince George's County resident who works by day as a cashier at a carwash and studies in the evenings at Prince George's Community College. "If I lose my license, how will I get around?"

Her father, Antonio Aleman, said he, his wife and his brother are in the same predicament: adapted to a highly-mobile American lifestyle that doesn't require legal residency but doesn't really work without wheels. "Why do they want to take our licenses away?" he fretted. Undocumented families would continue to have access to health care and public education.

Like all of the undocumented immigrants interviewed for this report, Aleman said he would probably continue driving even if he couldn't renew his license -- a scenario he was loath to imagine. "If I have to drive around without insurance, it's dangerous for me as well as other people on the roads," said Aleman, who drives a truck for his job as a metalworker.

If an accident or fender-bender can set the deportation process into motion after an arrest for driving without a license, many drivers will choose to flee the scene, he and others predicted.

Once, a license was just a permit to drive, issued until the late 1970s on a piece of paper. In the 1980s, photos were pasted on laminated cards. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that permit has become the country's primary identity document. It's produced with all the security features of a credit card -- digital holograms, microprinting and other invisible features designed to ferret out fraud. Even the crab on the upper right corner of Maryland's license is secured.

In 46 states, it also is an immigration tool that separates legal from illegal, visible from underground.

Immigrant advocates say drivers without licenses and insurance who get into accidents will drive up insurance costs for everyone, and those who don't receive the training that is part of the licensing process might be more prone to accidents.


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