SEATTLE — The races for governor and attorney general have brought renewed attention to a proposal that would create a two-tiered driver’s license system in Washington to address the issue of driving by immigrants who can’t provide proof of legal U.S. residency.
Washington and New Mexico remain the only two states in the country not to require proof of legal U.S. residency when applying for a driver’s license.
Under the proposal known as the Utah model, a person who can’t prove U.S. residency can get a permit that allows them to drive, but that document is not a valid identification.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna backs the idea, and attorney general candidates Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson speak of it favorably.
“The idea that you should be able to obtain (a key identity document) without proving you’re a legal resident of the country is seriously mistaken,” McKenna said during a debate in Yakima earlier this month.
McKenna’s opponent, Democrat Jay Inslee, has said he prefers keeping Washington’s current system in place.
Over the years, this has been a contentious issue in Olympia that pits immigrant advocacy groups against conservatives.
Immigrant groups argue that when illegal immigrants have access to driver’s licenses, it creates safer roads and allows them to purchase insurance. Opponents say that failing to ask for proof of U.S. residency invites identity fraud and could end up putting noncitizens in the state’s voter rolls.
In Utah, one industry that relies heavily on immigrant labor hasn’t seen much change since the law there was passed in 2005.
“Certainly there are labor shortages in our agricultural community, but we didn’t feel (the driver’s license law) had a significant impact,” said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy at the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. “It has not had an immediate or significant impact on the agriculture community.”
According to Utah Driver License Division data, the number of people applying for the Driving Privilege Card has steadily climbed since 2005, from 21,600 to 38,997 in 2011. It peaked at 43,000 in 2008. That same year a state audit found that more than 75 percent of people who had the driving permit also had active car insurance, comparable to the 82 percent rate of drivers with a regular license.
But now immigrant rights groups in Utah are worried about information sharing between the state and the federal government.
In the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers changed the law to mandate the state to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an applicant has a felony on this record. If the individual applying has a misdemeanor warrant outstanding, the state notifies the agency who sought the person’s arrest.
Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, says he’s concerned that people with minor offenses such as traffic infractions will be caught in the dragnet. He’s also worried about the database of people applying for the driving permits being leaked.
Beyond that, the system creates a two-class society, he said.
“They have big red letters saying for ‘driving privilege only’,” Garza said. “Anyone who shows that card — who may or may not be undocumented in the country — is a second class citizen.”
In 2010, the Utah Legislature created another driving permit for noncitizen legal residents, who initially could get the Driving Privilege Card. Still, nearly 160 legal immigrants have the permit.
It’s not just immigrant rights groups who oppose the two-tier system. In 2011, a Republican state senator wanted to undue the law because he saw the driving permit as a magnet for illegal immigrants.
In Washington, numerous bills to require proof of U.S. residency have been filed but have never made it the floor of any legislative chamber in recent memory. A bill using the Utah model was introduced in 2011, but did not make it out of committee.
In 2010, the Department of Licensing answered some of the concerns about driver’s licenses by narrowing the documents that it now requires to provide proof of Washington residency. It now requires proof of a valid Washington residence address if an applicant doesn’t provide a verified Social Security number. The proof documents, such as rental agreements, will be copied and verified by the agency before a permanent license is issued.
“First and foremost, we believe the current system works and we want as much as possible that DOL doesn’t become ICE,” said Toby Guiven, public policy director at OneAmerica, an immigrant advocacy group.
According to Department of Licensing data, fewer out-of-state people who didn’t provide a Social Security number have sought to obtain a driver’s license in Washington in the last two years, suggesting the department’s new restrictions are deterring illegal immigrants from other state from getting a license here.
The department’s data shows that in 2011, 9,237 people didn’t provide a Social Security number when obtaining a license. In all of 2010, more than 23,000 did not. As of October of 2012, more than 5,000 have.
Guiven argued that creating a new system would add costs to the state budget, new bureaucracies and more wait time at the local DMV office.
In Utah, wait lines did increase shortly after the new law was passed, but subsequently decreased, according to an audit.
One unsolved issue around driver’s licenses is the arrival of the federal REAL ID act. It was passed in 2005, but its implementation has been delayed since then. The latest deadline for states to come into compliance is January of next year. But officials expect that deadline to be extended.
Department of Licensing spokeswoman Chris Anthony said the Department of Homeland Security has asked for so far an update package for the state at the end of October, but that’s it so far.
She added that state lawmakers passed a measure that prohibited the department from acting on REAL ID until the federal government provided money.