States Slow to Give Driver's Licenses to Illegal Aliens
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
Southern California is 23-year-old Fatima Cristerna's home. It's where she grew up and attended elementary through high school. It's where her friends and family live and where she now is earning a graduate degree.
But Cristerna, who came to the United States with her family from Mexico when she was 7, is not a legal U.S. resident, a status that has impacted her otherwise typical American childhood in several ways, including making her ineligible for a driver's license.
Without a driver's license, Cristerna must take a two-hour bus ride to and from class each day while a car trip would be 40 minutes roundtrip. Her dilemma is shared by an estimated two million illegal immigrants of driving age in California who can't get licenses and millions more across the country.
"I am not really sure what it is that they are trying to do except keep people from driving legally in this country," Cristerna said.
It's stories like Cristerna's that prompted state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D) this year to resurrect a proven lightning-rod issue in California, which by some estimates is home to nearly 40 percent of the nation's estimated 8 million to 14 million undocumented immigrants.
Cedillo introduced a measure to qualify the state's undocumented workers for driver's licenses, a privilege already enjoyed by illegal residents in 10 states. Cedillo describes it as an effort to make the Golden State's roads safer by qualifying more drivers for insurance and helping to keep track of problem motorists.
But, like much of the country, California has shown it is severely split over issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Shortly before he was recalled in 2003, Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed a bill to let undocumented workers get state driver's licenses. A vocal public outcry led the Legislature to repeal the law even before it took effect and just as a grassroots group of opponents was preparing a ballot initiative to rescind it. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who successfully ousted Davis in October, campaigned on repealing the law if elected.
The new proposal in California aims to address security concerns that critics such as Schwarzenegger trumpeted last year, but it has done little to quiet the cries of opponents who complain that granting licenses to illegal immigrants extends just one more government benefit to people who are not legally present in the state.
"By granting licenses to people who break the law, we are rewarding that behavior," said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, a political group that has been one of the top forces against the bill.
Granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens has wide-ranging cultural, economic and security ramifications and has ignited debate from New York to California. Besides stirring anti-immigrant sentiments, the issue took on new potency after some of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were found to have state-issued driver's license, some obtained legally in Florida and others illegally in Virginia.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, all 50 states passed measures designed to make their licenses more secure. But a myriad of proposals to make licensing undocumented immigrants easier or more difficult haven't gained much steam this year in statehouses. In the 19 other states in which legislation on licensing illegal immigrants was introduced this year, lawmakers have adjourned without passing any significant new rules on the issue. California is the only state where such a measure is still pending.
Tyler Moran, a policy analyst with the National Immigration Law Center, said a decipherable nationwide trend towards strengthening or loosening laws on driving privileges for illegal immigrants has not yet emerged. In fact, in a handful of states, separate bills were introduced this year to do both.
As it stands, a hodgepodge of laws govern whether illegal immigrants can lawfully drive in the United States. Ten states (Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin) do not require license applicants to demonstrate that they are lawfully present in the United States, in effect granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Most of those states do require applicants to present an identification card issued by their home country.
Five other states provide special licenses with distinguishing features for non-citizens. South Dakota is the only state that - without exception -- requires all license applicants to give a Social Security number, which many illegal immigrants do not have. The others accept a patchwork of identification combinations. Some accept a taxpayer identification number issued by the Internal Revenue Service in lieu of a social security number.
New Mexico last year became the latest state to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and officials say the change has helped contribute to a drop in the state's uninsured rate, which in December of 2002 was 33 percent the highest in the nation and now is 17 percent. Insurance premiums also have dropped in that state and fewer people are fleeing accident scenes, according to Moran of the National Immigration Law Center. Almost 14,000 of the state's estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants have obtained licenses in the past year.
In other states, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R ) pushed a bill that would have provided temporary licenses to undocumented workers, but the bill stalled in the face of security concerns. In Tennessee, the Division of Motor Vehicles as of July will begin issuing driving certificates stamped with "not valid for ID" to temporary and undocumented immigrants as part of an effort to strengthen the state's license laws. In North Carolina, the state with the fastest-growing Latino population, the state DMV in February restricted the kinds of identification needed to obtain a license.
Opposition in California may have succeeded in trapping Cedillo's bill to expand driving privileges. A Senate committee earlier this week temporarily shelved Cedillo's proposal as part of a standard procedure that applies to bills that are projected to cost more than $150,000. The delay leaves only a brief window to pass the bill the last two weeks in August. The measure would require much more extensive background checks and higher fees up to $146 -- to get a driver's license. Initial reports indicate that Schwarzenegger remains skeptical of the legislation.
Leading the opposition to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants again this year is the California Republican Assembly, which has re-launched a grassroots campaign to defeat Cedillo's bill. Spence said the effort to license illegal immigrants is not really about road safety but is instead centered on providing them with what amounts to a national identification card. If illegal immigrants gain driver's licenses, it would be easier for them to vote or purchase firearms, he said.
"The real agenda here is not licenses, because in California you can already drive on a foreign driver's license," Spence said.
Fear that extending driving privileges to illegal immigrants could make it easier for terrorists to obtain identification remains one of critics' primary battle cries.
While not the main reason for his opposition, Spence argues that the background checks included in the current version of the bill are ineffective because they would inevitable rely on foreign information and that allowing illegal immigrants to obtain licenses would compromise national security.
Francisco Estrada, director of public policy at the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, characterized security concerns as a "red herring," saying the real driving opposition forces are xenophobia and economic protectionism.
"The fact of the matter is that it really is an anti immigration thing," Estrada said. "It really is in a lot of ways an anti-Mexican thing."
Although he is a fierce advocate of licenses for illegal immigrants, Estrada takes issue with the current California proposal. He says it could lead to more deportations because the background checks would make it easier for customs officials to track illegal immigrants.
But Cristerna is not concerned about the deportation issue. She wants to live the American life her parents imagined for her.
"I think children should not be punished because their families wanted to create a better life for them," she said.