Ticket to drive

July 19, 2004

STRENGTHENING driver's license security is a common-sense policy - we don't want people making phony licenses, or using fake documents to get a real license, and we certainly don't want to aid terrorists in these post-9/11 times. But to what extent should immigration status affect one's ability to obtain a license? It's far from a simple issue.

First, let's face reality. Yes, illegal immigrants are driving motor vehicles every day. In at least 10 states, a person can get a driver's license without regard to legal status. There are an estimated 9 million undocumented aliens in this country, and whether or not they can obtain a driver's license is probably not going to send them packing.

Nevertheless, denying these millions of people the opportunity to obtain a driver's license clearly causes hardship - and not just for the undocumented aliens. For one thing, it means a lot of states have abandoned the primary mission of licensing drivers - making certain that motorists have the requisite knowledge and skill to drive.

But more important, withholding a license makes it far more difficult for undocumented immigrants to hold a job - and prove their worth to U.S. society. And it also contributes to a mistaken public perception that immigrants, many of whom are of Hispanic origin, are not only second-class citizens, but also a genuine security threat.

Earlier this year, Tennessee began issuing driving "certificates" to foreign-born residents who can't prove their immigration status. The cards can't be used as ID's (it says so on them). The certificate was intended as a compromise, a way to raise security but not cause harm to immigrants. Early indications are that it's not doing much of either.

Long before 9/11, states struggled with driver's license laws and how they should apply to immigrants. In Maryland, a task force has been studying the issue for more than a year, and members concede it's proving a difficult subject. Driver's licenses have evolved into an important proof of identity and residence, and the state can't abandon that responsibility.

Maryland has never formally required immigrants to prove they are here legally. But over time, the state Motor Vehicle Administration's documentation requirements have become so strict that so-called lawful presence has become a de facto rule.

Such regulation probably has little impact on domestic terrorism. There's debate over whether any of the 9/11 hijackers might have been tripped up by any lawful-presence law, since some had forged documents and some were here legally.

A more productive approach has been the MVA's efforts to spot fraudulent documents. Foreign-born driver's license applicants are now restricted to five MVA offices. First-time applicants must make appointments far in advance, and their documents are checked more closely. It's a hassle for these drivers, but it seems a reasonable policy.

The Maryland task force is scheduled to finish its work by December, and then the General Assembly must decide next year what, if any, reforms are needed. Even if the Tennessee model doesn't work, lawmakers should seriously consider a more humane approach than the status quo. We don't have police officers enforcing immigration policy, so why MVA clerks?

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