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Already rare, driving privileges for illegal immigrants may soon disappear

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.washingtonindependent.com/Driving.jpgOnly three states, New Mexico, Utah and Washington, give driving rights to residents regardless of their immigration status. (iStock photo)

New Mexico, Washington and Utah are currently the only states that allow undocumented immigrants to drive. But in all three states, immigrants face threats to their right to drive as agencies step up residency proof requirements or politicians argue for eliminating illegal immigrants’ driving privileges altogether.

[Immigration1] Backlash against driving rights for illegal immigrants is nothing new: After 9/11, a few groups lobbied hard at the state level to change laws that allowed undocumented immigrants to receive licenses, claiming they could be used by terrorists to assume false identities.

Anti-terrorist fervor has since died down, but the push to clamp down on illegal immigration has not, and measures to take away driving rights for the undocumented have broad support. In New Mexico, for instance, Governor-elect Susana Martinez, a tough-on-immigration Republican, said last week that she has the public’s backing to change laws that allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

“Around 80 percent of people in New Mexico don’t want the people who are here illegally to have a driver’s license,” Martinez said on Univision Nov. 7. “They want to ensure that those who get licenses are from the United States.”

Advocates of licenses for illegal immigrants say they put more money in states’ coffers through vehicle registration and licensing fees. They also increase the number of licensed drivers, who must undergo tests and are required to buy insurance. This increases overall public safety, according to proponents, because licensed drivers are, overall, less likely to be involved in serious car crashes. One-fifth of fatal car crashes involve at least one unlicensed driver, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

“There is this hysteria at the national level that somehow people were able to use these documents to do harmful things, when really these people are just using the documents to drive, buy insurance and register their vehicles,” said Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant rights group in New Mexico that opposes changes to driver’s license laws. “We live in a state with very little public transportation. People drive because there really is no alternative.”

In Utah, immigrants may face another threat to driving rights if conservative state lawmakers succeed at passing broad immigration enforcement legislation based on Arizona’s SB 1070.

The state established a driver’s privilege card in 2005 for people who lived in the state but could not provide Social Security numbers. Now, though, immigrant rights advocates argue the card’s benefits could be undermined by a bill proposed by state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom (R). The bill would require police officers to check immigration status on people they arrest and can reasonably suspect to be illegal immigrants. It would also allow immigration enforcement officials to access the databases for driver’s privilege cards.

If passed, Sandstrom’s bill would likely discourage many undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s privilege cards, according to immigration lawyers. The law would allow police and federal immigration agents to access the database for driving privilege cards, which legislators promised would not be shared with police when the cards were created in 2005. The databases include international birth certificates, but generally immigration attorneys can keep the card from being used as evidence in deportation hearings because civil rights laws forbid police in non-border states from asking immigration status for non-immigration-related crimes.

Opponents of the bill say it is unconstitutional, in part because it would allow access to the database. And the mere existence of a driver’s privilege card would provide reason to suspect a driver of being undocumented, since U.S. citizens living in Utah would have a Utah driver’s license, which can be used for official purposes other than driving.

“If his legislation gets to be implemented, you will effectively be getting rid of the driving-privilege card,” state Sen. Luz Robles (D), who opposes the law, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Washington’s state Department of Licensing implemented new requirements Nov. 8 to try to keep Washington licenses out of the hands people who do not reside in the state after the Associated Press reported in August that more undocumented immigrants were seeking licenses in Washington, New Mexico and Utah after Arizona passed SB 1070. Washington allows people who do not have Social Security numbers to receive licenses if they meet other requirements and live in the state. Now applicants who cannot provide Social Security numbers are required to give a valid Washington address, proven by documentation such as a rental agreement. (It is illegal to rent to undocumented immigrants in some, but not all, jurisdictions.)

The idea is to eliminate instances of fraud, and to prevent undocumented immigrants from other parts of the country from traveling to Washington to get driver’s licenses even though they do not live there. In Maryland, which stopped giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in 2009, authorities said fraud became a major problem when Maryland became the only state in the east that gave driver’s licenses to people without Social Security numbers. Many states banned illegal immigrants from receiving driving rights between 2001 and 2005, when Congress passed the Real ID Act mandating strict regulations for driver’s licenses accepted for official federal purposes. The act didn’t overhaul driver’s license laws — 17 states passed legislation to undercut the act — but it set the course for more states to end practices that gave illegal immigrants licenses.

The last major effort to expand driving rights, by then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), ended in 2007 when Spitzer encountered heavy opposition to the proposal.

Maryland licenses were frequently obtained by out-of-state illegal immigrants who gave addresses to Maryland P.O. boxes or proved their residency using cell phone bills addressed to addresses where they didn’t reside. Some states, including Colorado, Arizona and Oklahoma, stopped accepting Maryland driver’s licenses for people who moved to the state to obtain new licenses.

In response to these concerns, Maryland instituted a new law on June 1, 2009, requiring immigrants to prove they were in the country legally to receive a driver’s license. Undocumented immigrants who previously received licenses were allowed to apply for one-time driving permits that will expire in 2015.

Washington made a better choice by continuing to allow illegal immigrants to receive licenses, said Tyler Moran, policy director for National Immigration Law Center, which supports driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

“That’s not a bad policy if they’re going to preserve licenses for everybody,” she said. “They’re intended for state residents, and states have every right to ensure people are actually residing in the state they apply for a license in.”

Moran, who has tracked the issue for a few years, said she hopes lawmakers in New Mexico and Utah will be successful at stopping efforts to take away or discourage driving rights for undocumented immigrants.

“The New Mexico law has been around for quite some time now and has seen this type of attack repeatedly,” she said. “Policy-makers have continually stood up and said this is good public policy for New Mexico. I’m hoping the state policy-makers will do the same next year.”

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