Maryland could become one of a handful of states that grant special driver's licenses to illegal immigrants under legislation garnering strong support in Annapolis.
The bill, passed by the Senate on Monday, would expand and make permanent an existing two-tiered driver's license system to include more than 100,000 people whose immigration status currently prevents them from applying for a license. Gov. Martin O'Malley backs the plan, which now moves to the House of Delegates.
"It's a safety issue," said Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's County Democrat who introduced the House version. "I want to know that everybody on the roads passed a driver's test. I want to know they have car insurance, that they know not to flee when they're getting pulled over or in an accident."
"It's practical," added Sen. Victor Ramirez, who introduced the bill in the Senate.
Opponents said the measure would attract illegal immigrants, making Maryland a "sanctuary state."
"We'll be the only state east of Illinois that does this," said Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.
Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said Maryland "has become a Disneyland for illegal immigrants with free rides and benefits." He added, "I don't know if this is going to make anyone a safer driver."
Four states —Utah, Washington, New Mexico and Illinois —have laws extending driving privileges to residents who cannot prove they are legally in the country.
Bills to grant licenses to illegal immigrants are pending in at least a dozen states, said Tanya Broder, senior attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. "It does feel like we're turning a corner on this issue," she said.
Other states are beginning to issue driver's licenses to young adults who were brought into the country illegally as children, but were recently granted a reprieve from possible deportation by the Obama administration.
An immigrants' rights advocate said politicians across the country seem to have become more attuned to the wishes of Latinos since the 2012 presidential election, when their votes were regarded as having played a key role in the outcome.
"The attitude toward immigrants and in particular the Latino community just hit a watershed moment last November," said Kimberly Propeack, political action director for CASA de Maryland.
The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union praised the Maryland Senate's 29-18 vote Monday as progress toward equal treatment for immigrants.
"We think [driving] is an essential element to daily life," said Sirine Shebaya, an attorney with the immigrant rights program of the ACLU. "People are going to drive anyway. ... These drivers will have to be trained, tested, and insured."
The state's Motor Vehicle Administration and O'Malley back the proposal because of its safety implications, officials said. MVA Administrator John Kuo pointed to a California study released in January that found unlicensed drivers there are nearly three times more likely to cause a fatal crash.
"Maryland data points in the same direction," Kuo said.
Maryland created the two-tiered system when the federal Real ID Act took effect, mandating that state-issued identification cards meet a variety of security standards — including that they are issued to people lawfully in the country. Before then, Maryland did not check immigration status when awarding driver's licenses.
The second-tier licenses were given to Marylanders who already had a license when the stricter rules took effect but did not qualify for a new one. The licenses read "not acceptable for federal purposes" across the top and cannot be used to board an airplane or enter a federal building.
About 95,000 people have one of the second-class licenses created in 2009, but those will expire in July 2015. Under the bill passed Monday, the special license program would be permanent and any illegal immigrant could apply for one.
An estimated 275,000 illegal immigrants, both adults and children, live in Maryland, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center, which tracks immigration issues.
Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin said expanding the program was inviting security risks and that a cleverly placed index finger could mask the distinction between the licenses.
Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, noted that a 9/11 hijacker who was on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon obtained a Maryland driver's license. Relaxing the rules, he said, would encourage immigrants from other states to apply for identification in Maryland.
"Now we're inviting a whole 'nother onslaught," Pipkin said.
In order to qualify for the second-class licenses, drivers must show other forms of identification and two-years' worth of Maryland tax returns. Supporters said that would make sure the drivers were Maryland residents. Like other drivers, motorists with a second-class license would have to pass written and practical exams.
During a February hearing on the bill, lawmakers heard testimony from several people about the daily struggle to get through suburban life without a car. One woman told of breaking her right foot and having to drive herself to the hospital because her husband couldn't get a driver's license because of his immigration status.
Ramirez, the Senate sponsor and a Prince George's County Democrat, said that tale illustrates how mundane yet crucial it is to have a driver's license — to get groceries, to go pick up children from school, to get to work.
"It's why people drive: to be able to provide, and in case of emergency," Ramirez said. "We want our highways to be safe."