In April, Wisconsin began enforcing a new law to prohibit illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses, but several longtime legal residents ran into unexpected hurdles to keeping their driving privileges under the rules.
An 82-year old World War II refugee from Poland, a Cuban immigrant who arrived during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and Laotians who came to the United States after the Vietnam War were among those who had a hard time proving they were in the country legally, said Patrick Fernan, deputy director of the Wisconsin motor vehicles department.
Citizens in other states also have been surprised by tighter driver's license requirements, including in Georgia, where some women who took their husbands' last names have had their licenses revoked because their surnames no longer matched their Social Security numbers.
In Tennessee, which began requiring proof of legal presence for driver's licenses this year, some legal immigrants also are finding themselves locked out of the driver's seat.
And in Alabama, new real-time background checks on driver's license applications have led to the arrest of more than 12,000 people on a variety of charges in the past four years, including a man arrested in 2006 with 66 felony warrants from the neighboring state of Georgia. Motor vehicles officials also have identified more than a dozen runaways this year alone because of the tighter scrutiny of license applicants.
Who can and can't get a driver's license and how those documents are issued have become part of a national debate since 2001 when terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 th attacks were found to have multiple state-issued identification cards.
Partly in response to those attacks and to a set of recommendations by the federal 9/11 commission, Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005, which will require states to begin checking the identity of all license-holders beginning in May 2008.
Under Real ID, an estimated 245 million drivers will have to renew their licenses in person and show a form of photo identification and documents proving date of birth, Social Security number and address. Non-citizens will be able to get a Real ID license only while they are in the country legally.
The Department of Homeland Security has described the regulations as voluntary, but non-compliant licenses will no longer be valid for boarding airplanes or entering federal buildings. Instead, license-holders from those states will have to use a passport or other federally issued identification, such as a military ID.
Despite the penalties, six states have passed laws refusing to comply with the law because it infringes on state practice and carries an estimated $14 billion cost, which will fall largely to state governments and license-holders. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians charge that Real ID will compromise security because states will have to share personal data with the federal government and other states to verify an applicant's identity.
Among that group of six, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and South Carolina do require some proof of legal presence to get a license, such as a Social Security number, but they will not cooperate with other aspects of the federal rules.
Maine and Washington also have passed laws rejecting Real ID. But they also would fail to meet the federal standards anyway because they issue licenses to illegal immigrants, along with Hawaii, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Utah.
New York recently joined that group when Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) announced that his state would accept a valid international passport to get a driver's license, even for illegal immigrants. Spitzer argues that the policy will improve road safety and increase the number of insured drivers.
But New York Republicans, including several county clerks responsible for issuing driver's licenses, have charged that New York now will become a haven for illegal immigrants and potentially criminals and terrorists who can validate their presence with state-issued identification. One county has even passed a law refusing to comply with Spitzer's order, and advocates for stronger immigration laws have blasted the governor.
"Rather than enforce laws that New York uses to punish other people for driving without licenses or without auto insurance, Gov. Spitzer is seeking to reward illegal alien scofflaws with the privilege of driving and a U.S. identity document," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
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."
Officials in Maryland and Oregon also are considering offering two different licenses for their residents: one that would meet the new federal guidelines and another for people who cannot provide proof of residency or don't want the extra cost and hassle.
Tennessee this year passed a law eliminating a separate driving certificate for non-citizens — the model for Utah's regulations — but the new rules shut some legal residents out. The state now allows legal non-citizens to have a driver's license while they are in the country legally. But the state won't issue a license that is valid for less than a year, eliminating people who may have to renew annual visas, for example, according to immigration advocates.
In Wisconsin, which began this year to enforce its new law requiring legal presence, Fernan of the motor vehicles department warned that states planning to crack down on licensing face a host of problems, unintended consequences and unhappy customers.
"You all will have a lot of mad people," Fernan told a roomful of state motor vehicles officials and private companies at a Washington, D.C., meeting last month. In addition to difficulties educating the public about how to comply, many individuals could not prove citizenship but also weren't illegal immigrants, he explained.
The World War II immigrant and Laotian refugees had been accepted to the country legally but simply had not completed the process for citizenship, Fernan said. The Cuban immigrant could not gain citizenship because of a criminal record in his home country, but also could not be deported, he said. In most of these cases, the motor vehicle department gave exceptions allowing the residents to get licenses.