Applicants for new Maryland driver's licenses would have to prove they are in the U.S. legally under a pair of competing and contentious plans up for votes Monday in the General Assembly.
Both measures would take Maryland off a short list of states that allow illegal immigrants to become licensed drivers and would bring the state into at least partial compliance with "Real ID," a federal security act passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Lawmakers and other officials hope that revising the state's licensing policy would reduce the pervasive problem of fraud and end the state's status as a magnet for undocumented immigrants looking for government-validated credentials.
But they are divided on how best to approach the revision, and sorting out the differences is one of the trickiest issues facing lawmakers as they enter the final two weeks of the 90-day legislative session.
For years, Republicans have pushed for drivers to prove "lawful presence" in the U.S. before obtaining a Maryland license, but the issue gained momentum this year because of an October federal deadline. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, asked lawmakers to pass a legal-status requirement for driver's licenses this year.
The House is considering a two-tiered system that would permit people already licensed to renew without documenting their legal status. Those licenses would be marked "not federally compliant," and wouldn't be accepted at airports or to enter federal buildings.
People with proof of U.S. residency - citizens and lawful temporary residents - would receive federally compliant drivers' licenses.
The House also is attempting to address other technical requirements of the Real ID Act, such as requiring the Motor Vehicle Administration to develop a security plan.
The Senate's plan makes no exception for undocumented immigrants who already have a Maryland license. Everyone renewing or applying for the first time would need to document lawful presence in the U.S.
Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington are the only other states that do not restrict driver's licenses to U.S. citizens. Maryland accepts out-of-country birth certificates, and a 2003 state attorney general's opinion said that unlawful presence was not, in itself, a reason to deny someone a driver's license.
The state's comparatively lax licensing standards have made it a draw for illegal immigrants from other states who falsely claim residency here. MVA officials say they have tightened their policy as much as possible without a change in state law.
MVA Administrator John T. Kuo told lawmakers in hearings last month that fraud cases, most of which involve licensing people born in other countries, have more than quadrupled in recent years. The MVA approved more than 6,600 licenses last year for illegal immigrants, by that agency's calculations.
Worried that would-be terrorists could take advantage of widely differing state policies on licensing, Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon had a Maryland driver's license.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that he opposes a two-tiered system but that he expects opposition to any lawful-presence bill before the Senate. Some lawmakers, particularly in more liberal counties such as Montgomery, side with immigrant-rights activists, who believe the state should continue licensing people who cannot show that they are in the U.S. legally.
"I hope common sense prevails," Miller said Friday. "When you hear the statistics of people in foreign countries and residents of other states applying for Maryland drivers licenses, it's astounding."
Delegates debated into the night Friday about the measure, with many raising concerns about broader immigration issues. Republicans, joined by a strong showing of Democrats, said that grandfathering in existing questionable licenses, as the House plan proposes, amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
A move to delete that and other controversial provisions failed by just 14 votes. Del. Gerron Levi of Prince George's County was among those skeptical of the two-tiered system, saying she wanted a plan that would best protect national security.
Other Democrats argued in favor of the "noncompliant license" category.
"What do you do with all of the illegal immigrants here who have been driving around for years?" asked Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat.
Immigrant-rights groups wanted an even more expansive second tier of licenses, which would allow not just existing licensed drivers as the House proposes, but even new applicants to obtain a "not federally complaint" license without documenting their legal status in the U.S.
"We believe it is a safety issue, not just for immigrants, but for everyone who drives," said Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action for the immigrant-rights group CASA of Maryland. "All that restricting licenses would do is put more untrained drivers on the road and increase the number of uninsured drivers."
But MVA officials were against that idea, saying it would leave the state open to fraud.
The House plan is considered by some to be a compromise. It was drawn up by Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, late last week at a Judiciary Committee hearing. She attached it, in the form of more than a dozen amendments, to a Republican bill that had more than 60 co-sponsors.
The committee adopted the amendments almost unanimously, but Republicans said the next day they hadn't had enough time to decipher the new plan.
When the House rejected a stream of amendments Friday that would have removed the grandfather clause, dozens of Republicans stood one after another to take their names off the bill.
If it becomes law, the House requirements for new licenses would go into effect April 19. Those who already have licenses would have to renew in the regular time frame, usually every five years.
The lawful-presence bill on the Senate side takes a different approach. It does not address other requirements of Real ID, as the House is trying to do, but it would appear to bring the state into enough compliance that it buys lawmakers more time.
The Senate makes no provision for immigrants who have already been licensed and would require all drivers to show proof of lawful presence in the form of documents such as a U.S. birth certificate or Social Security card.
Some senators urged their colleagues Friday to consider a two-tiered system. Sen. David C. Harrington, a Prince George's County Democrat said the debate about Real ID "should include other ways of compliance."
"We want something that doesn't open us up to a whole world" of illegal applicants, he said. "But we ought to be looking for something that is right and fair."
The House and Senate would have to work out their differences in a conference committee before the end of the legislative session next month.