Tighter license rules hit illegal immigrants

(Updated 11 a.m. EDT, Friday, Aug. 24) Even where it's legal, it's getting tougher for illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

The handful of states that issue licenses to illegal immigrants are stepping up efforts to combat fraud and identity theft. That means stricter rules for ensuring immigrants live in-state and are who they say they are.

In the last year, North Carolina and Tennessee stopped issuing licenses to illegal immigrants altogether. Meanwhile, New Mexico 's motor vehicle agency enlisted the Mexican government to help the state check the identity of would-be drivers. Maine is working to start limiting licenses to in-state residents, after decades of resisting.

Only seven states - Hawaii , Maine , Michigan , New Mexico , Oregon , Utah and Washington - allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.

Supporters of the policy say it helps authorities know who's on the road, encourages immigrant motorists to buy insurance and decreases tension between police and immigrants.

While fraud was cited as the chief reason for stricter rules in those states, a 2005 federal law called Real ID Act, could lead to even tighter regulations.

The law, which takes full effect in 2013, encourages states to make their licenses more secure. If a state does not meet the law's standards, license-holders in that state will not be able to use their ID to board airplanes or enter federal buildings, among other things. The 9/11 Commission, established in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, recommended the change.

Only Utah currently issues a different sort of license for people, including immigrants, who don't have Social Security numbers. The state's "driver privilege card" has red outlines and, at the top, states the card is "not valid identification for Utah government entity."

"We paid very, very close attention to developments with Real ID and best practices," said Jill Laws, a spokeswoman for Utah 's Department of Public Safety.

Maryland Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D) hopes to take a different approach to complying with Real ID.

She wants Maryland to continue issuing its normal licenses to citizens and foreigners living in the state. Only people who specifically ask for - and pay for - the Real ID-compliant licenses would get the federally approved version.

Gutierrez said giving drivers the option of which kind of license they want could save Maryland millions of dollars, while letting people more easily guard their personal information.

"We are trying to separate the whole issue of lawful presence from driver's licenses," she said.

Having two types of licenses, as contemplated under Real ID, could pose problems where police departments enforce federal immigration law, added John Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "When an officer is carrying both the federal mantle of immigration authority as well as trying to solve crimes, his mission gets confused. People are less likely to cooperate with them," he said.

Besides, states are ill-equipped to determine the immigration status of drivers, said Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Even checking an applicant's immigration paperwork doesn't always work, because the U.S. State Department routinely grants blanket extensions for visa holders from certain countries, he said.

Dunlap isn't making any preparations to comply with the Real ID Act.

"The Legislature made my life very easy. They passed a bill prohibiting me from doing anything, in any way, at any cost to comply with Real ID. They wanted nothing to do with it," he said.

Still, several states that give licenses to illegal immigrants are asking for more proof of residency and identity.

In a first-of-its kind effort launched this year, New Mexico is now tapping into the foreign government's database to look up names, birthdays and photos of Mexican drivers living in the state. The database lets the agency verify the identity of people who use an ID card issued by Mexican consulates, called the "matricula consular."

The state also checks the identity of American citizens with a federal database.

An ongoing audit found that more than 99 percent of foreign drivers in New Mexico who signed up used their correct identity, noted Ken Ortiz, director of New Mexico 's Motor Vehicle Division.

Still, the agency also recently announced it will start requiring all drivers, including foreign nationals, to provide two forms of identification instead of the previous one.

Ortiz said the ability of foreigners to get New Mexico licenses, a change instituted along with several other insurance reforms in 2003, contributed to a steep drop in the state's rate of uninsured motorists. In 2003, New Mexico had one of the worst uninsured rates in the country with 33 percent. Now, its rate is 11 percent.

The state licenses 30,000 drivers who don't have Social Security numbers.

After decades as a hold-out, Maine lawmakers took steps this spring to limit its driver's licenses to Maine residents, after authorities discovered ads in Polish-language New York City newspapers promising easy access to Maine licenses, said Dunlap, the secretary of state. The Legislature directed Dunlap to work with outside groups to address practical concerns that a residency requirement could create.

A 2005 audit that uncovered abuses with Utah 's driver's licenses led to the two-tiered licensing system the state uses today. Previously, Utah allowed illegal immigrants to get regular driver's licenses.

In one instance cited in the audit, 62 people who got licenses within a year reported the same Salt Lake City apartment as their address.

Despite worries that fewer undocumented drivers would sign up for the separate licenses, there was only a small drop-off. Under the old system, some 40,000 drivers were unlicensed; now there are 38,000 motorists with driving privilege cards.

In May, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) ended a two-tiered licensing system there, which once served as a model for Utah . Bredesen pulled the plug after federal regulators determined that some Tennessee testing sites were selling licenses to illegal immigrants from out of state. Under Tennessee 's new law , legal immigrants are eligible for temporary licenses as long as they're authorized to be in the United States .

Last August, North Carolina also completely halted giving licenses to illegal immigrants. The state had more than 73,000 drivers without Social Security numbers as recently as 2003, but, since then, lawmakers there made it increasingly harder for illegal immigrants to get licenses before cutting it off completely.

Tags: Immigration