Driver’s licenses for illegals spark another debate

Supporters tout the fiscal benefits for Maryland; opponents cite undeserved privilege

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A year after giving many of Maryland’s illegal immigrants the right to in-state college tuition, some state lawmakers want to give them improved access to driver’s licenses in a move that supporters say could have fiscal benefits and would bring residents in the state illegally out of the shadows.

A bill in this year’s General Assembly effectively would repeal the state’s 2009 law that bars new driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and others who are unable to document their citizenship.

Maryland would join a handful of states that allow licenses for undocumented immigrants. Supporters of the plan say that immigrants often have no choice but to drive because of family and work obligations, and that denying them licenses does more harm than good by putting more unlicensed and uninsured motorists on the road.

“I believe this is for the good of the state of Maryland,” Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, Prince George’s Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said. “It would help protect our highways and roads in the state of Maryland, and it would help law enforcement identify people more readily and faster.”

If the bill passes, Maryland would join Washington, New Mexico and Illinois — which passed its law last month — as states that allow driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

Utah allows a special driving privilege card, while many other states, including Maryland and Virginia, have said they will begin allowing licenses for young illegal immigrants who qualify for the work waivers being implemented by the Obama administration.

Mr. Ramirez’s legislation would allow residents who can’t prove their citizenship to obtain a special license that would allow them to drive but would not be an acceptable form of identification in other venues such as airports and federal buildings.

Maryland explicitly outlawed licenses for illegal immigrants in 2009, when lawmakers passed legislation to help the state comply with the federal Real ID Act of 2005, which sought to place tighter regulations on state driver’s licenses but has since been caught in delays and implemented by few states.

The state’s law included a grandfather clause that allowed illegal immigrants and other undocumented residents who had licenses at the time of the law’s passage to keep them until July 2015.

Opponents of Mr. Ramirez’s bill argue that it affords another privilege to residents who aren’t legally in the country and that it could decrease their incentive to seek proper citizenship.

But supporters contend that banning licenses accomplishes nothing and just leads many people to drive without insurance or proper training. The result is more accidents, which can escalate to hit-and-runs if the driver fears being caught without a license, and to higher insurance costs for law-abiding drivers.

They also say the plan could bring the state $7 million a year in additional driver’s fees and that IDs could help police to keep track of illegal immigrants and find any potential criminal histories.

“We know that a large number of those people without proper documentation to be in the country are, in fact, driving,” said Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, a Democrat. “They carry their kids to school, they work, they attend a large number of activities.”

The proposal has solid support in both chambers of the assembly, with 15 of 47 senators co-sponsoring the Senate version and 60 of the House’s 141 delegates lending their names to their version of the bill. All sponsors are Democrats.

But Republicans and even some Democrats worry that the proposal could backfire and make Maryland a more attractive draw for new illegal residents, just as New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, says has happened in her state.

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