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Illegal immigrants risk deportation by driving without licenses

Critics argue that giving undocumented immigrants licenses enables them to live in the United States more easily and will encourage more to come here illegally.

"Giving them a license is a tacit legitimization of their presence here," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration controls.

Advocates counter that the undocumented will drive if that's the only way they can get to work or other places they need to go. Giving illegal immigrants licenses or permits makes them more likely to insure their vehicles and allows the government to keep better track of them, they say.

"They have kids who need to get to school or who need to get to the doctor. They need to buy groceries," said Joan Friedland, managing attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "People would prefer to have licenses and get insurance."

Adrian, a 45-year-old carpenter from El Salvador who lives in Gaithersburg, said his heart pounds every time he gets behind the wheel. He drives only when he has no other way to get to a job.

"Every time I get in the car, I think of my family," he said. In El Salvador, he supports a wife and four children, whom he hasn't seen in seven years. "If the police arrest me, then who will look out for them?"

For now, Adrian's car, a Toyota Camry, is insured through his son, 24, who got a Maryland license before the law changed. But that license, like those of illegal immigrants in other states that have ceased to grant them, will one day expire and will not be renewable.

"Statistics are hard to come up with because you're getting more and more people who had driver's licenses in the past, and now they're expiring," said Marty Rosenbluth, staff attorney with Southern Coalition for Social Justice. As the licenses expire, immigration experts predict, more drivers will join the ranks of the unlicensed.

Adrian said about half of his friends drive without licenses. Ten who were caught doing so are in deportation proceedings and wear ankle-bracelet monitors.

But getting stopped and found to be driving without a license doesn't always lead to deportation, said Kraig Troxell, a spokesman for the sheriff's office in Loudoun County, which, like Prince William's, trains its police officers to identify and detain illegal immigrants. If drivers can identify themselves and have no criminal record or other reason police are seeking them, he said, offenders are often issued summonses and sent on their way.

Prince William also gives officers discretion to issue a warning or a summons, said Sgt. Kim Chinn, a police spokeswoman, adding that even when the police stop illegal immigrants who have no licenses, they generally are not taken into custody if they can prove their identity.

Part of the reason may be because ICE is unequipped to deal with the increasing number of illegal immigrants driving without licenses. The agency has said it is concentrating on the pursuit and deportation of those with more serious criminal backgrounds.

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