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Licensed to drive [Editorial]

Last week, Maryland joined a handful of other states that allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally on state roads, to register vehicles and to buy auto insurance. That's good public policy because it not only will make the state's roads safer for everyone who uses them but also help those living in the country without legal permission achieve a measure of self-sufficiency. Thousands of residents who previously either feared getting behind the wheel at all or who risked arrest or worse for driving without a license reportedly are now lining up to take the MVA written exam and road test.

It should be obvious to anyone who depends on a car for getting back and forth to work, ferrying schoolchildren or running errands that the safety of everyone on the road is increased when all motorists have had to demonstrate a minimum level of competence in driving skills and knowledge of traffic laws. Protecting public safety is, after all, the main reason states require drivers to be licensed; the fact that government-issued licenses are also widely used as photo ID cards is an important but secondary consideration in deciding who can legally drive.

That is why the state legislature approved the creation of a two-tiered licensing system in Maryland last year that allows the state to confer driving privileges on people regardless of their immigration status. Previously, state-issued identification cards had to meet a variety of strict federal security standards, including one that mandated licenses be issued only to people who could prove they were in the country legally. But relying on the Motor Vehicle Administration to enforce immigration laws was never a wise policy. Under Maryland's system, applicants who can't document their immigration status can still obtain a valid drivers license, albeit one that can't be used to verify their identity as airline passengers or visitors to federal facilities.

What the licenses can do, however, is help ensure that people who want to drive on the state's roads meet minimum safety standards and that their vehicles are registered and insured. Undocumented immigrants are less likely to leave the scene of an accident or attempt to flee from police if they know a traffic stop won't automatically get them deported for driving without a license, and that will greatly reduce the hazard such drivers pose to other motorists as well as make life easier for immigrants who are dependent on cars to get where they need to go.

Some lawmakers vigorously opposed the change when the measure was debated in the legislature last year. Most of their objections stemmed from concerns that granting driving privileges to undocumented immigrants would instantly turn Maryland into a "sanctuary state" and lead to an even larger influx of people living in the country illegally. There were also dire predictions that the integrity of the state's drivers licenses would be undermined and that a flood of counterfeit Maryland IDs would threaten the country's ability to guard against foreign terrorist threats.

Such concerns are unfounded; there's nothing in the experience of other states that have adopted similar systems to suggest that they either have prompted a huge influx of immigrants or that they have made residents less safe. Such objections are little more than the product of anti-immigrant hysteria, often whipped up for partisan advantage.

The 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country aren't going anywhere, but many of them are going to end up driving regardless of whether they are licensed. Maryland's system admittedly may be less than ideal; it would be far better for Congress to finally enact comprehensive immigration reform that allows a path to citizenship and legal residence for undocumented immigrants. But until that happens, the state's two-tiered system may represent the best compromise available that acknowledges the reality of the state's situation and helps secure the safety of its residents.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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