Bill proposes proof of residence for license

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration called on the General Assembly yesterday to require that applicants for state drivers' licenses prove they are legal U.S. residents.

The development adds impetus to a proposal that has languished in the face of protests from immigrant-rights activists.

O'Malley indicated last year that Maryland would comply with a federal security law known as Real ID, but state officials haven't moved forward with implementing a "legal presence" requirement. They had been waiting to see whether federal officials would reverse the policy after the election of President Barack Obama.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari told lawamakers yesterday that he doesn't anticipate a reversal and warned of an impending deadline for compliance. He told lawmakers that if they failed to act, they run the risk of Marylanders not being able to use their drivers' licenses to board a plane or enter a federal building, beginning next year.

Maryland is one of four states, and the only one east of the Rocky Mountains, that doesn't require license applicants to prove legal residency. O'Malley, at a separate appearance, said that he discussed the matter with governors during a weekend meeting and concluded Maryland could not be out of step with most other jurisdictions.

"We need to be compliant," he said.

But the issue splits Democrats, who hold a majority in both legislative chambers. Some are lining up behind a plan to create a two-tiered system, under which the Motor Vehicle Administration would issue identification cards to people who can prove they are legal residents, while keeping the current drivers' license system in place. That proposal drew backing from immigrant advocates, religious groups and the Maryland public defender's office. They contend that denying drivers' licenses to thousands of undocumented immigrants would unduly burden an entire segment of society. They also say that requiring licensure, regardless of immigration status, promotes public safety.

Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's County Democrat who has sponsored a two-tier bill, noted that new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been critical of Real ID and held out hope it would be rescinded even as Ivey "reluctantly" introduced legislation to comply with it. The federal act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005, though final regulations were not issued until last year.

Porcari and MVA Administrator John T. Kuo argued that the two-tier system would be more costly and confusing to implement, partly because noncompliant drivers' licenses would have to be reissued and clearly marked as not valid for federal purposes.

Porcari said the O'Malley administration decided to support the more restrictive legislation because it would help to ensure the integrity of the system, noting that fraud cases have more than quadrupled in recent years. Kuo said that most of the fraud is related to out-of-country applicants seeking licenses.

Others, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, say a legal residency requirement is needed for national security. He noted that a Sept. 11 hijacker on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon had a Maryland driver's license. "We have vacillated for several years now, but I think now is the time when we recognize that people have got to have a legal presence in the state of Maryland in order to obtain a drivers' license," he said.

Some lawmakers appeared resigned to that position. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he had opposed a legal presence requirement for years, hoping that Congress would change the law. But, he said, if that doesn't happen he doesn't want Maryland residents "thrown into chaos" because the state is out of compliance.

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