Monday, December 1, 2003

A senior homeland security official said yesterday that if states issue driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, the licenses would lose their acceptance as de facto identity cards by the government and the private sector.

“Historically, we’ve looked at it that [applicants for a driver’s license] ought to be able to prove citizenship, because we’ve relied upon those driver’s licenses,” said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation at the Homeland Security Administration.

“If the states are going to change the historical context and say they don’t need citizenship … then we have to change our whole reliance upon them,” he told reporters.

Mr. Hutchinson’s remarks came as the California Assembly acted to repeal a driver’s license bill, signed by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis before he was recalled from office, that dropped the requirement for applicants to prove citizenship or legal residency.

“The bill had insufficient security standards,” said Vince Sollitto, spokesman for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made repeal of the bill one of the first orders of business of a special legislative session.

Mr. Hutchinson said the California bill had been a step in the wrong direction.

“It is a significant concern to us anytime you have a diminished integrity in the system of issuing state identification documents,” he said. “That is a problem for our inspectors.”

Mr. Hutchinson stressed that the rules by which licenses are issued are the prerogative of states, and pointed out that Congress has ruled out a national ID card.

“States do have prerogatives; we want to work with them to make the right decisions, to help us to enhance security, not diminish it,” he said.

But he hinted that if more states did not fall into line, some alternative to the status of licenses as de facto IDs might have to be found.

“We want to emphasize that there are some national impacts to those state decisions. … Decisions have to follow anytime the integrity of those systems are diminished,” he said. “I have tried to sound the alarm on that particular point.”

Seven of the 19 suicide hijackers who killed 3,000 people on September 11 had driver’s licenses or state ID cards issued by Virginia, which at that time did not require proof of “legal presence” — the right to be lawfully in the United States.

“The ability of an individual to create a well-documented, but fictitious, identity … provides an opportunity for terrorists to move freely within the United States,” John Pistole, the FBI’s assistant counterterrorism director, told the House Select Committee on Homeland Security in October.

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