Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More on the Great Maryland Drivers License Feud

As David Lublin noted, Marc Fisher’s January 27 column carried news of alleged broken promises by the O’Malley administration over the issue of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. But this is merely the latest incident in an escalating, internal Democratic Party feud over the issue.

The drivers license issue has a bit of history worth recalling. Maryland is one of seven states (the others being Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington) that do not require license applicants to prove legal U.S. status. On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers, all of whom were admitted to the country legally, were able to obtain a combined 13 drivers licenses and 21 other ID cards and use them to board and commandeer airplanes. Several of these documents were obtained with fraudulent records. Among the hijackers was Hani Hanjour, who fraudulently obtained a Maryland ID card from the Motor Vehicle Administration and used it to pilot a plane into the Pentagon. Later, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission called for strong national standards applying to ID documents including drivers licenses and birth certificates to prevent terrorists from acquiring them. In 2005, the Congress passed the Real ID Act, which among other things required that states not issue licenses to individuals illegally present in the U.S. The original date established for compliance was 5/11/08 but that has since been pushed back to 2010.

It is commonly believed that the 9/11 Commission recommended denying drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. But as the commission’s successor organization, the 9/11 Public Disclosure Project, makes clear on its website, that is untrue. The project authors state:

Specifically, we did not make any recommendation about licenses for undocumented aliens. That issue did not arise in our investigation, as all hijackers entered the United States with documentation (often fraudulent) that appeared lawful to immigration inspectors. They were therefore “legal immigrants” at the time they received their driver’s licenses… Whether illegal aliens should be able to get driver’s licenses is a valid question for debate.
But President Bush and the Republican Congress explicitly set up Real ID requirements to block licenses for illegals anyway. Soon enough, the states began calculating the costs of bringing their license systems into compliance with Real ID requirements and began to balk. Maryland estimates its costs at $60-80 million. Seventeen states and counting have passed legislation and/or resolutions opposing Real ID, including Maryland. But the federal requirements remain and that is causing political turmoil.

Maryland Secretary of Transportation John Porcari originally proposed installing a two-tier license system to deal with Real ID. Legal residents could obtain Real ID-compliant licenses while illegal immigrants could obtain non-compliant licenses that still conferred in-state driving rights. But Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez (District 18) rejected this approach, telling the Washington Post, “In this climate, that's a scarlet letter… Any policeman could call [federal] authorities.”

Delegate Gutierrez need not have worried about Porcari’s proposal because Governor O’Malley swiftly killed it. The Governor declared, “We should not allow Maryland to become an island virtually alone on the East Coast” by issuing drivers licenses to illegals. He called instead for one license program that was completely Real ID-compliant. O’Malley was no doubt paying heed to the painful experience of another blue-state governor who proposed, then backed down from, a plan to license illegals.

Gutierrez responded by accusing the Governor of “betrayal” and even told Post columnist Marc Fisher, “The governor did not keep his promise… This is what he promised me when he was begging for my vote for the slots referendum, which I gave him. And that is the last time I do that.” That should make for interesting reading for the many anti-slots voters in District 18.

This issue is turning into a significant internal feud within the Maryland Democratic Party. Each side has something important to lose.

On one side is the Democratic establishment. Over the long term, the state party benefits by strengthening its ties to immigrant voters, especially Latinos. These voters are often socially conservative and will require economic reasons to vote Democratic. It would be wise for politicians to remember that immigrants often belong to large, mixed households that include legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and citizens. Measures that target illegal immigrants tend to antagonize their entire families, and many members of these families are citizens who vote.

On the other side is the state’s Latino leadership. As mentioned above, Delegate Gutierrez has used terms like “scarlet letter” and “betrayal” in describing the administration’s policies. (One can only imagine what is being said in Spanish-language media.) This sort of hot rhetoric, flung about in the newspapers like searing frying pans, may very well earn the enmity of both the Governor and the Secretary of Transportation. And that may prevent the District 18 delegation from obtaining movement on its urgent transportation priorities. In fact, many of Delegate Gutierrez’s constituents are undoubtedly viewing the growing rift with unease, if not dismay.

And so the two sides have a strong incentive to compromise, perhaps using something resembling MDOT’s original proposal as a starting point. But neither side is showing much inclination at the moment. Happy memories of a new state-financed immigrant services center in Langley Park are rapidly fading. Should the feud escalate, it will create bad consequences for state Democrats, immigrants, and quite possibly, District 18 residents.

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