Driving costs

February 16, 2005

YET AGAIN, tight-budgeted and overburdened local jurisdictions are being asked to do a job the federal government has proved itself incapable of doing - managing millions of illegal immigrants living here and weeding out any terrorists among them.

First there was a mandate requiring local police to arrest illegal immigrants. Now congressional lawmakers want state motor vehicle agencies to ferret out illegal immigrants seeking driver's licenses.

The U.S. House of Representatives' recent passage of a proposal establishing national standards for state-issued driver's licenses, in the name of national security, is as inane as asking police officers to check for green cards during every traffic stop.

What's more, the House is trying to pass the buck without providing the bucks to pay for it. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost $100 million over five years to implement the new license standards. These costs should not be borne by states increasingly being asked to do more on national security with insufficient resources.

The House measure, sponsored by Wisconsin Republican F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., requires state motor vehicle offices to determine the immigration status of applicants before issuing them licenses. Only licenses given to U.S. citizens, legal immigrants and government-approved refugees and asylum-seekers could be accepted as identification by federal agencies. Additionally, states would have to implement an array of practices, such as taking digital images of immigration documents provided by applicants and keeping them in electronic storage for at least 10 years.

The National Governors Association and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators called the legislation "a massive unfunded mandate" that would impose costly technological standards and burdensome verification procedures on states, "many of which are beyond the current capacity of even the federal government." Nationwide, about 220 million state-issued drivers' licenses would have to meet the new standards.

But an intelligence reform law passed last year already provides a framework for developing national license standards and gives states flexibility incorporating proven security practices. The governors group and the motor vehicle administrators are working with the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop those standards.

The White House Office of Management and Budget says the administration "strongly supports" passage of the license bill. But first, President Bush should push to enact his immigration reform plan, which addresses the economic forces that draw illegal immigrants here in the first place by allowing immigrants to temporarily fill jobs not held by Americans. The measure should also legalize some of the millions of otherwise honest undocumented immigrants already working here who have family ties here and no intention of returning home.

Once an immigration plan is in place and new flexible national license standards are developed, then perhaps a federally financed program governing licenses might be acceptable. In the meantime, the Senate should deep-six Mr. Sensenbrenner's bill.

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