Driving sense

December 20, 2004

STATE LAWMAKERS commissioned a task force last year to review Maryland's rules for issuing driver's licenses to immigrants and to consider several troubling questions. Chief among them: How many illegal immigrants drive on state roads and highways without licenses because the Motor Vehicle Administration does not grant them to people who can't produce certain official documents?

More than a year later, the task force found it could not answer this and other questions posed by a legislature caught between wanting to make the roads safer for all drivers and not wanting to grant potential terrorists a widely accepted identification card that often serves as a gateway to getting credit cards and bank accounts, buying guns and boarding airplanes, and being granted access to public buildings and rental cars.

Consequently, the task force recommended last month that the MVA continue requiring documentation vetted by a state or federal agency, which, in effect, excludes many illegal immigrants.

The recommendation is sure to disappoint lawmakers and residents on both sides of the issue - those who supported new laws that exclude illegal immigrants and those who wanted the current law relaxed to clearly include illegal immigrants.

State legislatures around the country have grappled with this issue - and many are still hotly debating it - ever since it was learned that seven of the 9/11 hijackers were in the country illegally and got licenses in Virginia using fake residency documents.

Still, it may be just a matter of time before the federal government steps in with national standards for issuing driver's licenses, a recommendation of the 9/11 commission. Lawmakers unsuccessfully used the recommendation to attempt to include tough restrictions targeting immigrants in the recently passed intelligence reform law. Although the commission did not specify who should be allowed to obtain a national driver's license, the issue nearly derailed the bill.

Lost in all the debate is how effective such laws will be in protecting national security if they push people to seek fake documents on the black market, or force law enforcement officers and motor vehicle department workers to spend lots of time and resources attempting to authenticate the documents of "foreign-looking" people or those with "foreign-sounding" names.

The angry calls for changing license rules that followed the 9/11 attacks were based on giving a terrified and terrorized public a sense that senior government officials who failed to heed warnings of an impending attack in the first place were taking charge. Now the calls are back, this time to give the public a feeling of control at a time when many Americans complain that the country is being overrun by illegal immigrants.

But a national driver's license must be part of a larger immigration reform plan that separates immigrant from terrorist and considers the push and pull of the American labor market and adjusts accordingly. It must shed the lie that the United States can function as well, and prosper as much, without the cheap labor of poor immigrants and the expertise of highly talented, well-educated immigrant scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. Immigration reform - driver's licenses and all - should deal with the reality of America's position in the global economy. An ill-informed rewriting of the driver's license laws will create, at best, a false sense of security.

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