License to survive

Our view : If Maryland must adopt stricter standards for driver's licenses, it should do so with compassion and offer a second-tier version, too

March 31, 2009

One way or another, Maryland is going to have to meet federal standards for driver's licenses under the Real ID program. The only question is whether the state legislature does so while extending some understanding to the state's immigrant community.

From the start, Real ID has been a flawed tool in the federal effort to improve national security. By creating a de facto national ID card but shifting the burden of such a program to the states, Congress foolishly enlisted Motor Vehicle Administration clerks to the front lines of national defense.

But the politics of illegal immigration has become so gridlocked and the debate so superheated on the federal level that sweet reason is not likely to prevail any time soon. That leaves Maryland lawmakers with a choice.

They can comply with Real ID in its strictest form and force anyone who wants a driver's license to prove he or she is in the country legally, or they can also create a second-tier driver's license for those who already have a license but can't prove that they are here lawfully. This second-tier license couldn't be used to board an airplane or enter a federal building.

This latter proposal has won support in the House of Delegates, and it's clearly the more palatable of the available options. Why? Because to deny all drivers who can't prove legal residency a driver's license would create serious hardship for no good reason. It wouldn't force Marylanders or anyone else from among the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants to leave the country in the near future (as some of the most xenophobic among us would seem to wish), but it would make it more difficult for many of them to support their families.

If the experience of other states is any guide, it would mean more people would be on the road driving without a license and fewer people with car insurance. Some businesses would be hurt, MVA lines would be longer and the process of getting a driver's license more arduous, particularly for the poor, elderly and women whose birth certificates would be deemed insufficient proof if they've changed their surnames.

There's no doubt that Maryland has become a magnet for illegal immigrants and for unscrupulous vendors who help them acquire licenses fraudulently through mail drops and bogus in-state addresses. This can't continue.

But the solution need not be to punish hardworking families, many of them assets to their communities. These are neighbors who tackle jobs others find distasteful and who share our values and want their kids to have a better life. For them, a second-tier license would be no golden ticket, but it's no finger in the eye either.

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