ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses, which would make the Free State one of a handful to allow them to legally get licensed.
The measures would repeal a Maryland law passed in 2009 that outlawed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, a move made to comply with the federal Real ID Act. The 2009 law let illegal immigrants keep their driver's licenses until July 1, 2015.
Bills before the Maryland House and Senate would eliminate that deadline, allowing those in the country illegally to keep, renew and apply for new driver's licenses. The licenses would not be allowed as ID in airports or federal buildings.
Washington, Illinois and New Mexico already allow driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
"My hope is that we will be tying driver's licenses to proving that you can drive, which keeps our roads safer, obviously," said bill sponsor Del. Jolene Ivey, D-Prince George's County.
The measure would expand on rights that Maryland allows illegal immigrants, which include the 2012 Dream Act, approved by voters, that gives in-state tuition at Maryland colleges to some illegal immigrants in the state.
The bills enjoy strong support among the Democrats, who dominate the legislature. Sixty Democrats in the 141-member House are signed on as co-sponsors, while 15 Democrats in the 47-member Senate are signed on.
Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro testified for the bill before a Senate panel, saying that making sure everybody who is on the road is licensed to drive is a public safety issue.
Navarro and other supporters of the bill say illegal immigrants are going to drive anyway -- they have to go to work and take their children to school -- so it's important that they be able to prove that they can drive before they get on the road.
Advocates add the bills would free up police, who are currently required to arrest and detain anybody driving without a license.
However, opponents worry that the licenses would remove a benefit of legal citizenship.
"I believe this will violate the notion that we should not provide incentives to break the law," said House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-St. Mary's and Calvert counties.
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, who voted for the 2009 ban, said repealing it would be a bad idea.
The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration "said [in 2009] they were overwhelmed with making this a sanctuary for people who come from outside the country," Brochin said. "[Repealing] that would be a catastrophic thing to do."
A legislative analysis shows the measures could increase state revenues by as much as $7 million in the first year, due to licensing fees. However, it would cost the state $3.6 million to implement the licensing program.