State to Seek Bill Tying Legal Status to Driver's Licenses

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008; Page B02

Maryland's transportation secretary said yesterday that the state will move ahead with legislation to require immigrants to prove they are legal residents before they can drive.

If approved by the General Assembly during the legislative session that begins next month, the change would reverse a long-standing policy that makes Maryland one of four states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

The move follows an announcement 11 months ago by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) that, in its effort to comply with the federal security law known as Real ID, Maryland would require immigrants to prove a "lawful" presence to be able to legally drive. In effect, O'Malley reversed a plan that his transportation secretary had set in motion to develop a two-tier system that would have issued separate licenses to undocumented immigrants and legal residents.

States have until 2010 to begin complying with Real ID. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for homeland security secretary, has criticized the law for the costs it imposes on states and said Arizona would not comply. Many legislatures and governors have said they hope the Obama administration will scale back the law's provisions.

But Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari said yesterday that the legislature must act this year or risk the security of its licensing system. "The timelines compel us to do something this session," Porcari said after his staff briefed lawmakers on the proposal.

In the past year, four more states have imposed legal-presence mandates, officials said, leaving Maryland, New Mexico, Hawaii and Washington as the only ones that allow undocumented immigrants to drive. With Maryland the only such state on the East Coast, it is becoming a "pass-through" for nonresidents who try to obtain licenses, state Motor Vehicle Administrator John T. Kuo said.

Under a program complying with Real ID, all residents seeking licenses would be required to show Social Security cards, passports or military identification to prove their legal status, Kuo said.

Porcari said he expects a bill to be introduced by the governor or transportation agency. The resulting debate would probably pit the O'Malley administration against immigrant advocates who say the policy change would be a setback for thousands of immigrants.

"Given the new [Obama] administration, why should we be moving forward with this?" asked Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's), whose district includes many immigrants.

Kuo told Ramirez that although he asked "an excellent question . . . I have to work with facts and deadlines."

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the Real ID law continues to pose challenges, largely because of its cost. "We're waiting for guidance from the new administration. In the meantime, we're continuing to move forward."

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