Battle brewing in Maryland over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants

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ANNAPOLIS -- A battle is brewing in the General Assembly over whether to grant driver's licenses to Marylanders who are in the country illegally.

Vocal opponents of the bill equate it to rewarding people for breaking the law and warn the measure could turn Maryland into a haven for illegal immigrants, while supporters say the legislation is needed to make sure the streets are safe and everybody on the road has proved their ability to drive.

By the numbers
• An estimated 275,000 illegal immigrants live in Maryland.
• 95,000 driver's licenses will have been issued to Maryland illegal immigrants by Oct. 1.
• About 420,000 illegal immigrants live in the surrounding states and the District of Columbia. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration estimates about 5 percent of those would move to Maryland to obtain a driver's license.
• The state would make $7.3 million from licensing and renewal fees in fiscal year 2014 if the bill is approved.
• That number would steadily fall, with the state taking in $2.9 million in fiscal 2015, $914,000 in fiscal 2016 and roughly $830,000 each in fiscal 2017 and 2018.
Source: Maryland Department of Legislative Services

If the bill is signed into law, Maryland will become one of a handful of states -- and the only jurisdiction in the Washington area -- to allow illegal immigrants to legally obtain driver's licenses.

The state Senate on Friday tentatively approved the bill, which would eliminate Maryland's 2015 deadline for illegal immigrants to get rid of their Maryland driver's licenses.

The bill is expected to pass the Senate if it is voted on Monday. However, Monday is the deadline for bills to pass their chamber of origin, and it would be a lot more difficult for the bill to pass if it missed that deadline.

The driver's license bill is expected to have a harder time passing the House, where a nearly identical bill failed to make it out of committee.

House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-St. Mary's and Calvert counties, equated the bill to incentivizing illegal immigrants to break the law, a sentiment voiced by his counterpart in the Senate during debate.

"The fact of the matter is, we are rewarding behavior," said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Eastern Shore. "They're here without a legal presence, they're driving without a license, let's reward them."

The measure would reverse a state law passed in 2009 to outlaw driver's licenses for illegal immigrants by 2015, a move made to comply with the federal Real ID Act.

The bill would expand on rights that Maryland has given illegal immigrants, including the 2012 Dream Act, approved by voters, allowing some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges.

Pipkin offered a number of failed amendments, including requiring fingerprinting and background checks for illegal immigrants applying for licenses -- something Pipkin noted was required for legal citizens to buy guns under a proposal from Gov. Martin O'Malley -- and requiring the line on the license that says "Not valid for federal purposes" be written in large red letters. The Maryland licenses would not be valid for going through airport security or into federal buildings.

Supporters of the licenses say it's a public safety matter -- illegal immigrants need to drive to work or take their kids to school, so licensing them would ensure they knew how to.

"The point is, we can teach these people how to drive," said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County. "Many of them are on the road, they are a hazard to us, they are a hazard to people on the road."

Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro supports the bill. She testified before a Senate committee that it's necessary so illegal drivers can buy insurance. She said uninsured drivers were costing Marylanders $100 more per year in insurance costs because of accidents they caused.

"This legislation will allow people who are currently on the road illegally to come out of the shadows, pass a driving test and buy insurance," she said.

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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Andy Brownfield

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner