States Balk at License Bill as It Heads to U.S. Senate
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
It will be impossible for states to comply with stringent mandates for state-issued driver's licenses specified in an immigration bill that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives last week, state officials say.
The bill, which experts predict will encounter resistance in the U.S. Senate, would preempt plans for more flexible driver's license standards passed by Congress late last year as part of landmark legislation overhauling intelligence agencies.
It explicitly bars federal agencies from accepting as valid forms of identification licenses issued in states that grant them to illegal immigrants.
Ten states -- Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin -- currently do not require license applicants to show they are lawfully present in the United States, in effect granting licenses to illegal immigrants.
Temporary workers and other foreigners with pending legal immigration claims would be eligible only for temporary driver's licenses or identification cards, similar to a driver's certificate for guest workers unveiled in Tennessee last year.
The House-passed bill has been dubbed the "Real ID Act" by its chief proponent, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who says the more rigid standards are needed to keep driver's licenses out of the hands of terrorists.
But Cheye Calvo, who tracks the issue for the National Conference of State Legislatures, criticized a requirement that states verify all documents, such as birth certificates, used to obtain a license and said the bill would shift to states the responsibility to enforce immigration law. He said already overburdened state motor vehicle divisions are ill-equipped to do this.
"It's actually telling states to do things that are simply impossible, that are not doable," Calvo said. "Immigration status is a federal responsibility. It should not be our job to confirm a status bestowed by federal officials."
Calvo said the measure infringes on states' rights and could translate into billions of dollars in unfunded mandates as states struggle to enforce the requirements.
Both NCSL and the National Governors Association grudgingly accepted the less stringent standards included in last year's intelligence overhaul bill, in large part because that legislation included a negotiated rule-making process that gave states a seat at the table.
Without a framework allowing state input as the standards are devised and implemented, the result will be less effective, Calvo said.
"States are the experts; we've been doing this for almost 100 years," he said. "So it's critical that the standards reflect reality, that they reflect the way the process works."
The intelligence overhaul marked the first time the federal government has mandated identification standards for driver's licenses, birth certificates and other forms of state-issued ID, and state officials say those standards given the chance will work.
"While governors and motor vehicle administrators share your concern for increasing the security and integrity of the driver's license and state identification process, we firmly believe that the driver's license and ID card provisions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 offer the best course for meeting those goals," NGA Executive Director Raymond Scheppach and Linda Lewis, president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said in a Feb. 8 letter urging House leaders to reject the immigration bill.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, in which four of the 19 hijackers used valid state-issued driver's licenses to board the airplanes they later crashed, driver's licenses have been viewed as a homeland-security tool and not just a way to regulate who's allowed on the nation's roadways. Nearly every state has made some effort to secure its licenses.
In 2004 alone, 25 state legislatures considered 46 bills relating to licensing illegal immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center, a policy analysis group that advocates on behalf of low-income immigrants.
Some states, such as Florida, considered but did not adopt temporary licensing programs similar to Tennessee's - the first of its kind in the nation. In Tennessee, the Division of Motor Vehicles as of July began issuing driving certificates stamped with "not valid for ID" to temporary and undocumented immigrants as part of an effort to strengthen the state's licensing laws.
To force the Senate to consider the "Real ID" measure, House leaders might attach it to a must-pass bill, such as a supplemental war spending proposal. The bill, which easily passed the House 261-161 last week, also garnered support from the White House.