Activists and labor groups representing the District’s immigrant population applauded D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Thursday as he introduced legislation to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. But after the cheers stopped, even they criticized the bill.
The District would follow five states — including two this week — that have enacted similar legislation. Activists in the city, though, objected to the bill’s creation of a second tier of licenses, saying they could be used to root out illegal immigrants.
Each license would include a disclosure — a marking or a stamp — stating it is not a form of federal identification, a difference that one activist said would make it a potential “scarlet letter” for those who carry one.
“What we would really want is one license that doesn’t have any difference from any other license,” said Sapna Pandya, executive director of Many Languages, One Voice, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group for non-English-language speakers. “Because people could still mistake that and still discriminate against somebody because they are going to see ‘not for federal purposes’ on the license.”
The distinction is one that will prevent the District from running afoul of federal law and lessen the risk that Congress would disapprove of it, a legitimate fear since all local legislation must survive a 30-day congressional review period.
“We are going as far as we can,” Mr. Gray said, acknowledging the criticism but noting his office already had heard grumbling about the bill from Capitol Hill.
Mr. Gray said the District would not share driver’s license information with federal authorities and cited a previously enacted order he issued that prohibits public-safety officers from asking people about their immigration status. The order also directs officers in seven D.C. agencies not to arrest people based only on their immigration status.
The District of Columbia Drivers Safety Amendment Act of 2013 proposed by Mr. Gray would allow residents who have lived in the city for at least six months but cannot prove lawful residency to obtain a D.C. driver’s license in order to legally drive a car and obtain car insurance steps Mr. Gray said will improve safety on the roads. It also could reduce the black market demand for fake driver’s licenses and give illegal immigrants a way to legally drive back and forth to jobs or family obligations.
“We are moving on calls for action that will allow all people who face daily roadblocks that make their lives difficult to have the opportunity to drive to work, to drive to school, to go to day care or church, or all the other things that so many other people in this city take for granted,” Mr. Gray said.
A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center estimated that about 25,000 illegal immigrants live in the District.
Before this week, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington were the only states that allowed people who don’t have legal permission to live in the United States to obtain driver’s licenses. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill Thursday that would allow licenses for illegal immigrants — a day after Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a similar measure. Colorado and North Carolina are considering legislation.
Of those states, only New Mexico and Washington issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants without any demarcation.
While the District’s proposed license would be accepted by city agencies, the disclosure that it is not a federal form of identification would prevent it from being used to enter federal buildings or board an airplane, officials said. A similar bill that did not include a disclosure was introduced before the D.C. Council earlier this year and enjoyed widespread support from council members. Officials now intend to hold joint hearings on both of the bills and advocates said they would work with D.C. Council members to consolidate the legislation and do away with the proposed markings.
“This bill takes a major step in the right direction,” said Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, at Thursday’s announcement. “But Mr. Mayor, we know there is some room for improvement, specifically in the area of whether these licenses are marked or not marked.”
Turning the mayor’s own “One City” slogan on him, Mr. Williams asked that the council adopt “One City, One License for all.”