Bowing to federal pressure to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the O'Malley administration announced yesterday that in two years it would begin requiring all driver's license applicants to present a birth certificate, passport or some other documentation to prove they are legal residents of the United States.
With surrounding states already lining up to comply with the federal REAL ID law, state officials said they had to follow suit or Maryland residents might have trouble boarding commercial air flights or getting into federal buildings.
"We can't be an island," Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari told members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "We can't be the only jurisdiction out there that is not going to do this."
Maryland is one of a handful of states that do not currently require proof of legal presence in the country before issuing or renewing a driver's license. Seven states have passed legislation rejecting the federal law, but two of those states recently announced plans to comply, according to John T. Kuo, chief of Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration.
Even so, state officials made it clear they were complying reluctantly. Speaking to reporters yesterday, Gov. Martin O'Malley called REAL ID bad policy but said he had agreed to go along to prevent Maryland from becoming a magnet for those unable to get licenses elsewhere.
"We'd become an attraction to people who feel that they can more easily obtain a license through fraudulent means here because there's one less thing they have to prove," O'Malley said.
Porcari told lawmakers yesterday that Marylanders likely would wind up paying $15 more for a new or renewed driver's license to cover the costs of following the federal law. He called it a backdoor effort by Congress to require a national identification card, and he warned that the extra scrutiny required of applicants probably would force delays on everyone, including those born in this country, in processing their paperwork.
"Our citizens, quite frankly, are going to be shocked by what is going to be required, such as finding an original of a birth certificate," he said. Predicting "major degradations of service" at the MVA, he added: "If you wait until the day before your birthday to walk in and renew your license, you will not walk out with a new license."
Though Congress passed the REAL ID law in 2005, Maryland officials say they have been waiting to see exactly what would be required of states to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses. Final regulations, 284 pages of them, were announced Friday.
The law takes effect later this year, but it allows states to delay compliance until 2010. Maryland has already been granted that extension.
The O'Malley administration had been considering a two-tier approach allowed under the law, in which applicants who could not document their legal presence in the country would be issued a license to operate a motor vehicle in Maryland but would not get a card that would be accepted as identification at airports or in other states. Adopting that approach had been projected to cost $60 million to $80 million.
But Kuo said that the federal regulations issued last week gave states more time, making it cheaper to go ahead with full compliance.
Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat, complained that the federal ID law interferes with the state's interest in ensuring that all motorists on the highways have been trained to drive safely.
"You have become the immigration service," he said, adding that he cares more that all drivers on the roads have some safety training than that some illegal immigrants are getting driver's licenses.
But other senators demanded to know why the administration was waiting another two years to require proof of legal residence, given Kuo's acknowledgment that MVA workers are seeing more cases of fraudulent identification presented to get driver's licenses.
Anyone with a valid driver's license on Jan. 1, 2010, can wait until it needs to be renewed before coming in with the required documentation, state officials said. Because licenses are good for five years, that means that all Maryland driver's licenses would be REAL ID-compliant by 2015.
Those who do not drive can obtain a federally sanctioned identification card by presenting the same documentation to the MVA, officials said.
Cindy Boersma, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, called the administration's announcement "very disappointing." She noted that almost half the states have objected in some fashion to the requirements of the REAL ID law, which she contends could expose the public to increased risks of identity theft. The law requires states to maintain extensive databases of private information on all its residents, and to share that with other states' licensing agencies as well as the federal government, she said.
"There are signs that this mandate is in retreat," Boersma said, noting that bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal the law.
Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.