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Policy: Entitlements

D.C. weighs offering driver's licenses to illegal immigrants

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Local,DC,Transportation,Eric P. Newcomer,Immigration,Entitlements

The District hopes to join the tide of left-leaning states, which now includes neighboring Maryland, that offer driver's licenses to those who can't show they're in the United States legally.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd Thursday, Mayor Vincent Gray called the bill "historic legislation designed to increase public safety" that would help undocumented District residents who "frankly have every right to look forward to normalcy in their lives."

The bill's advocates argue that it will allow people in the country illegally, some of whom already drive without a license, to buy car insurance, register their vehicles and to take the required tests to earn a driver's license.

"Whatever reason they are here, ladies and gentlemen, they are here," said Councilwoman Mary Cheh on behalf of the legislation. "We must do it, and we can do it, and we will do it, I'm quite sure."

Legislation that would allow drivers without Social Security numbers to receive a driver's license is likely to pass the council, members say. The mayor said he hoped the members would approve the bill before they recessed on July 15.

But there is some division on the particulars of the bill, which many advocates had not seen as of the mayor's announcement Thursday afternoon.

Councilman Jim Graham and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson have supported eliminating the Social Security number requirement for all driver's licenses.

The mayor's proposal would differentiate between driver's licenses provided to individuals without a Social Security number and other licenses by placing a stamp indicating that the driver's license cannot be used as a form of federal identification.

The mayor argues that move is necessary to keep the District in compliance with the federal law.

"We will honor it as an identification in the District of Columbia," Gray said.

Gray said local government buildings like City Hall would recognize the licenses.

Despite the differing approaches, Graham and Mendelson joined the mayor to celebrate his proposal Thursday.

Mendelson "unhesitatingly" called the mayor's proposal a productive step and said he was confident a bill would pass the council.

Jaime Contreras, vice president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, called the mayor's proposal "a step in the right direction."

He said he supported a driver's license without the stamp.

"No bill is perfect in the beginning," he said.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill that lets undocumented residents apply for a driver's license.

Nationally, Congress has been grappling with how to address the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

During Thursday's news conference, Gray repeatedly urged national legislators to act.

"I invite the federal government to join us in this journey," he said.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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