Reprinted with permission of Stateline.Org
In April, Wisconsin began enforcing a new law to prohibit illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses, but several longtime legal residents ran into unexpected hurdles to keeping their driving privileges under the rules.
An 82-year old World War II refugee from Poland, a Cuban immigrant who arrived during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and Laotians who came to the United States after the Vietnam War were among those who had a hard time proving they were in the country legally, said Patrick Fernan, deputy director of the Wisconsin motor vehicles department.
Citizens in other states also have been surprised by tighter driver's license requirements, including in Georgia, where some women who took their husbands' last names have had their licenses revoked because their surnames no longer matched their Social Security numbers.
In Tennessee, which began requiring proof of legal presence for driver's licenses this year, some legal immigrants also are finding themselves locked out of the driver's seat.
And in Alabama, new real-time background checks on driver's license applications have led to the arrest of more than 12,000 people on a variety of charges in the past four years, including a man arrested in 2006 with 66 felony warrants from the neighboring state of Georgia. Motor vehicles officials also have identified more than a dozen runaways this year alone because of the tighter scrutiny of license applicants.
Who can and can't get a driver's license and how those documents are issued have become part of a national debate since 2001 when terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11th attacks were found to have multiple state-issued identification cards.
Partly in response to those attacks and to a set of recommendations by the federal 9/11 commission, Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005, which will require states to begin checking the identity of all license-holders beginning in May 2008.
Under Real ID, an estimated 245 million drivers will have to renew their licenses in person and show a form of photo identification and documents proving date of birth, Social Security number and address. Non-citizens will be able to get a Real ID license only while they are in the country legally.
The Department of Homeland Security has described the regulations as voluntary, but non-compliant licenses will no longer be valid for boarding airplanes or entering federal buildings. Instead, license-holders from those states will have to use a passport or other federally issued identification, such as a military ID.
Despite the penalties, six states have passed laws refusing to comply with the law because it infringes on state practice and carries an estimated $14 billion cost, which will fall largely to state governments and license-holders. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians charge that Real ID will compromise security because states will have to share personal data with the federal government and other states to verify an applicant's identity.
Among that group of six, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and South Carolina do require some proof of legal presence to get a license, such as a Social Security number, but they will not cooperate with other aspects of the federal rules.
Maine and Washington also have passed laws rejecting Real ID. But they also would fail to meet the federal standards anyway because they issue licenses to illegal immigrants, along with Hawaii, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Utah.
New York recently joined that group when Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) announced that his state would accept a valid international passport to get a driver's license, even for illegal immigrants. Spitzer argues that the policy will improve road safety and increase the number of insured drivers.