Immigrant Licensing: Security Vs Safety Concerns
By Marie Beaudette, Staff Assistant
After learning that most of the 19 hijackers responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attack had obtained driver's licenses in Florida, New Jersey or Virginia using faked credentials, many state lawmakers rushed to introduce legislation aimed at restricting licenses for immigrants as a security measure.
Nine months later, most of those initiatives have stalled amid competing concerns over highway safety and anti-terror policy.
Before the terrorist attacks, at least 15 states were seeking to ease immigrant-licensing restrictions, according to the National Immigration Law Center. The efforts aimed to allow illegal and legal immigrants to get driver training, licenses and insurance, in turn leading to safer roads.
After the attacks, 30 states proposed restrictive measures such as requiring applicants to prove they are legally in the United States or tying license expiration to visa expiration.
But only four states Colorado, Virginia, New Jersey and Kentucky have passed the legislation.
There are " a very small number of states where more restrictive proposals were passed," said Josh Bernstein, senior policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center. "I would have thought that many of them would have become law."
States such as California are seeking to address both highway safety and security concerns.
Just before the attacks, the California legislature voted to eliminate the requirement for a Social Security number when applying for a license, allowing illegal immigrants in the process of becoming legal to get one.
"(The bill) is simply a matter of public safety that seeks to ensure that Californians can have the confidence that other California drivers have been licensed and have been trained to drive on California roads," said David Galaviz, legislative director for bill author Los Angeles Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-CA)
Gov. Gray Davis (D-CA) has not yet signed the bill while he works to get the assembly to pass companion bills that would help prevent possible terrorists from becoming licensed, Galaviz said.
Critics of restrictive licensing say it is a mistake to rely on driver's licenses as a primary form of identification and a tool against terrorism.
"I don't really believe that having a driver's license is relevant to terrorism," Bernstein said. "Nothing would have been gained if all those restrictions were in place before. "
Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, argues that there is a need for a national licensing policy that would require states to have similar standards. With increasing security demands, he said, states must be backed by the federal government in order to make sure the system is functioning properly.
"The driver's license is giving Americans a false sense of security," King said. "People expect that when they accept a driver's license ... we have done our homework."
A national survey conducted by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators found that 77 percent of Americans favor federal legislation that would require more uniformity and stricter penalties for fraud.
Federal legislation now working its way through committee would require states to link driver's license expiration to visa expiration.
The National Conference of State Legislatures opposes this legislation, calling it an "unfunded mandate on state governments."
Bernstein said that at least for now, the federal government should not get involved in issuing of driver's licenses.
"If there is a federal mandate on states to do one thing or another, it's going to be expensive for the states," he said. "Some states are going to end up doing things their citizens really don't want to do."