Deaths renew license debate

Illegal immigrants can get document to drive under present Md. law

December 05, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The deaths of a Marine corporal and his companion by an alleged drunken driver who appears to be an undocumented immigrant is almost sure to resurrect a heated debate in Annapolis over whether Maryland should give driver's licenses to those who are in the country illegally.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, state lawmakers nationwide have moved to prohibit illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses or other identification, either through outright bans or regulations that make it impossible in practice.

But Maryland is one of several states - seven or eight, depending on who's counting - that haven't. Intense discussions in Annapolis during the past several years have led to a stalemate between immigrant activists who argue that giving licenses to illegal immigrants will improve public safety and others who argue that the state must do everything it can to keep them off the roads.

Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican who has worked for years to tighten restrictions on illegal immigrants, said the deaths in Howard County on Thanksgiving of Marine Cpl. Brian Mathews and his companion, Jennifer Bower, were not an isolated incident. Maryland needs to change its policy now, he said.

"If these people were not here, that Marine ... would be alive," McDonough said. "It's bad enough that we have people who lose their lives in accidents. It's much worse when accepting the violation of our national laws creates even more victims."

But any move to tighten the restrictions is sure to draw opposition. Immigrant advocates make the case that licensing undocumented immigrants is good policy because it ensures that the state knows who is on the road and that they are qualified to drive.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat, said tightening the restrictions is the wrong lesson to take from this accident.

"Isn't it better that he is a licensed driver and we know who he is and where you can get him?" Gutierrez said. "The fact that a driver is drunk and has an accident - of course that is abhorrent. But that's got nothing to do with where they were born or what their immigration status is."

The driver in another recent fatal accident, a hit-and-run last Friday in which a 3-year-old boy and his carriage were dragged three-quarters of a mile in Baltimore County, was a Mexican native in the country legally. Bail for Lazara Arellano de Hogue, 40, was set at $250,000 yesterday, and a county District Court judge ordered her to surrender her passport pending trial.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s office concluded in 2003 that nothing in existing law specifically precluded illegal immigrants from getting licenses in Maryland, provided they could produce the other documentation the state requires, such as proof of identity and residence in the state.

That year, the state legislature passed a law requiring applicants for driver's licenses to provide their Social Security numbers but still provided exceptions for those who don't have them.

The legislature set up a task force to study the issue, but discussions deadlocked between advocates for tougher restrictions and those who believed the state should allow immigrants to use identity documents from foreign countries to get licenses, a change that would ease the path for illegal immigrants.

As a result, Maryland remains one of a few states where illegal immigrants can legally get licenses, said Tyler Moran, a policy analyst for the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center.

"There are stumbling blocks probably for an undocumented immigrant," she said. "It wouldn't be easy, and oftentimes I think they would need an advocate to help."

Amid his re-election effort this summer, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed regulations eliminating certain documents from the list of those the Motor Vehicle Administration accepts as proof of identity and residence, such as foreign baptismal certificates or school records. The governor also proposed hiring more investigators, and cited a 233 percent increase in fraudulent license applications in recent years.

The driver in the Nov. 23 accident, Eduardo Raul Morales-Soriano, 25, had a license from another state, North Carolina, when he applied for his Maryland license. It's unlikely that Ehrlich's proposed restrictions or any others short of an outright ban on giving licenses to undocumented immigrants would have kept him from getting a license.

Ehrlich's proposals need to be approved by a panel of legislators, which has not met since the governor proposed them. The panel's chairman, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky of Prince George's County, said he wanted to wait until after the election to take the issue up so that it could be discussed in depth and not reduced to campaign sound bites.

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