Drivers in Dilemma As Md. Shifts Gears On License Policy

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.

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.

Motor Vehicle Administrator John Kuo said his agency has to weigh competing missions of security and road safety. "We said the security issue outweighs the benefit of safety."

The ability to drive has allowed immigrants to broaden their housing and job prospects.

Many Hispanic immigrants are employed in construction and landscaping, jobs that often take them to construction sites and new subdivisions beyond the reach of the region's public transportation network.

"How would I get to work? I drive all over the region," said Rey Juarez, 33, a Greenbelt resident who came from Guatemala eight years ago and works as a carpet installer.

Juarez's vehicle, a black 2007 Cadillac Escalade, had become a source of pride and status. "I could never have this in my own country," he said.

Immigrant rights advocates say the MVA could fashion a driving permit to look almost like a full-fledged license. But Kuo said that to avoid confusion, the card will likely have this phrase stripped across it: "Not for federal identification purposes."

Frederick is the only Maryland county that has deputized police officers to act as immigration agents, checking and turning over to federal authorities the names of illegal immigrants arrested for anything from traffic infractions to violent crimes. In recent months, Montgomery County police have started forwarding the names of suspects arrested only for violent crimes.

Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said he is conflicted about whether denying undocumented immigrants licenses is a good thing. "We need to do something to stop the fraud," he said. "But I don't think public safety is enhanced in any way if you have people driving without licenses."

An illegal immigrant caught driving without a license would be charged, "but we will continue our policy of not asking people about their legal status," Manger said.

Virginia stopped issuing licenses to illegal immigrants in 2004. The result, said Manger, who retired as Fairfax County police chief that year, was a mix of unlicensed driving and fraudulently obtained Maryland licenses. That year Virginia courts convicted 49,124 people of driving without a license, a number that had jumped to 62,642 by fiscal year 2007 and dipped last year to 54,282, statistics compiled by the Department of Motor Vehicles show. The numbers do not distinguish between legal and illegal drivers. However, Manger said that few charged with driving without a license have never been licensed in Virginia.

The prospect of a second-tier license makes many immigrants balk. The process would effectively create a database of Maryland's illegal immigrants, they said, that could facilitate federal immigration efforts to deport them in the future.

"That's discrimination," said Rudy Galvez, 26, a Guatemalan who lives in Langley Park and works for a sprinkler and fire protection services company. "I'd rather not have anything."

But others said many would apply for the permit, if grudgingly. "In the end, people want to drive," said Victor Illescas, 43, a Guatemalan immigrant who manages a garage at an Exxon Station in Silver Spring. "They don't care about entering federal buildings."

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