- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — If Republicans hope to remain a force in Maryland politics despite losing top posts and legislative seats in the November elections, immigration questions may give them their opportunity.

When Gov.-elect Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, takes office next month — with a legislature even more strongly in Democratic control — some Republican lawmakers say they’ll be seeking answers to those questions.

They plan to push Mr. O’Malley and the Democratic leadership to outline how Maryland plans to comply with the federal requirement for tamper-proof driver’s licenses starting next year, a requirement called Real ID that could cost states $11 billion. The Real ID requirements will force Maryland to decide whether illegal aliens should be licensed to drive, a sore subject for some who worry about illegal immigration.

“Maryland’s like the easiest place in the country to get a license,” said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the No. 2 Republican in the state Senate. Another Republican, Sen. Janet Greenip of Anne Arundel County, said she will introduce a bill requiring proof of citizenship before getting a driver’s license.

“It’s the single most-divisive legislation that’s going to come forward this year,” said Stephen Schreiman, state director of the Maryland chapter of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, which supports tougher curbs on illegal aliens.

The outgoing governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., already has put forward to state transportation authorities a requirement that drivers show proof of citizenship. The proof-of-citizenship requirement takes effect next month and would stand unless Mr. O’Malley changes the policy or lawmakers decide to intervene.

Hispanic advocates said they’ll join the Republicans in needling Democrats in Annapolis to address the question of citizenship and driving — but they’ll be on the opposing side.

“We cannot allow people to be driving without driver’s licenses or operating a vehicle without insurance,” said Jorge Ribas of Laytonsville, who is president of the Greater Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a supporter of licensing without citizenship requirements.

Maryland may not have a choice.

Spurred by the fact that some of the September 11 hijackers used driver’s licenses to board airplanes, Congress last year decided to tighten requirements for identification required to get through airports. By 2008, states will likely have to overhaul the way they license drivers, though exact requirements haven’t been released. States could be looking at a cost of about $11 billion to comply with Real ID, said Matt Sundeen, who studies transportation for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Driver’s licenses won’t be the only immigration-related topic that could face lawmakers over the next four years. Mr. Schreiman’s group, which fights for tighter immigration controls, also plans to push lawmakers to require government contractors to prove their workers are legal before winning state contracts. Mr. Kittleman said the Republican Party also is looking at proposals to punish employers that hire illegal aliens.

Mr. Ribas said Hispanic allies will push for more state funding for adult English classes.

Democratic leaders acknowledged that immigration is a hot question these days — but most of them said immigration questions are best left to the federal government, and that state politicians aren’t under the same kind of pressure to do something.

“The guys down the street in Washington are really the ones that have to get a handle on this immigration stuff because, as you know, it’s a shambles,” said Democratic Sen. John C. Astle of Anne Arundel County.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said lawmakers probably will end up dealing with citizenship and driver’s licenses — but not in the short term. “You’ve got to follow the federal government. It’s a federal issue,” he said. “We’re still looking for direction on Real ID.”

Other Democrats said immigration and licensing rules aren’t high on the priority list for lawmakers dealing with a projected budget deficit and a new governor. “I don’t think it’ll be a big emotional issue this year,” Democratic Sen. Paul G. Pinsky of Prince George’s County said of immigration.

Mr. Schreiman warned that Democrats may appear as though they’re stalling on immigration questions if they don’t make a plan.

“My prediction is, if the state legislators continue in the direction they’re going now, declaring there’s no problem, there’s going to be lawsuits filed” on immigration questions, he said.

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