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Driver's licenses for all drivers

In Annapolis, some conservative Republicans — having apparently not taken notice of the 2012 election and the conundrum facing their party over its hard-line immigration stance at the national level — are lambasting a proposal to expand and make permanent a two-tier driver's license system in Maryland. One even warned that Maryland could soon become a "Disneyland" for illegal immigrants.

But it is opponents who are living in a Disney-like fantasy land if they can't see who the chief beneficiary would be of any system that seeks to ensure all Maryland drivers meet minimum standards of knowledge and competency and are eligible for insurance. That would, of course, be everyone who ever chooses to drive on roads in this state.

The Senate approved the driver's licensing measure this week with that pragmatic goal in mind. There are approximately 275,000 immigrants living in Maryland who lack lawful status. Many of them drive (and even have licenses now). Do we bar them from renewing or acquiring a license? That only increases the likelihood that they will not be properly trained and insured.

On the other hand, would such hardship cause these immigrants to vacate the country they now call home — and may have called home for a generation or more? One need only look to the rest of the United States, where an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants reside with or without a driver's license, to know that's not the case.

When President George W. Bush signed the REAL ID Act into law in 2005, we warned that forcing the Motor Vehicle Administration to enforce federal immigration policy was unwise. The law stemmed from the need to create a de facto national identification card, particularly to verify the identity of passengers on planes or visitors to federal facilities.

But evolving federal regulations also allow states to offer a second-tier driver's license, one that won't necessarily be accepted at airports (at least not after this summer, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) but will do what a driver's license is designed to do — make sure the applicant meets minimum safety standards.

That seems like a reasonable accommodation. And far better than encouraging a black market for fake Maryland driver's licenses or having to deal with a lot of unlicensed drivers. This isn't a handout; it's a matter of self-protection. Until Congress crafts immigration policy that provides a future for the nation's undocumented immigrants, states will likely have to make more such choices. At least a dozen states are contemplating similar plans.

Immigration opponents tend to conjure up images of illegal immigrants as criminals or welfare layabouts. In reality, they are people like the recent 18-year-old high school graduate who came to the U.S. as a baby and who President Barack Obama has pledged not to deport.

Last year, voters endorsed in-state college tuition rates for such taxpaying individuals under the Maryland Dream Act. Don't we also want to ensure that these future college graduates — young adults who may have no memory of living anywhere but the United States — have a way to go to work and live a productive life? What could possibly be the point of denying them a driver's license?

The notion that this accommodation might endanger national security is laughable. To suggest that implies that Transportation Security Administration agents are incapable of reading a driver's license properly. If so, those responsible for airport security have bigger issues than a two-tiered license to worry about.

Admittedly, this is not the ideal solution. Far better for Washington to finally craft some sensible immigration policy that provides a path toward citizenship for those who are living here, leading productive lives and deserving of that opportunity. Then a two-tiered driver's license might not even be necessary.

But that probably won't happen until the GOP puts less energy into vilifying immigrants and more into coalescing behind a compromise with the Democrats. Immigration reform would be better for the future of the Republican Party, for the nation's economy and for the safety of our highways. In the meantime, stop-gap efforts like a two-tier driver's license are going to be needed.

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