Undocumented Immigrants May Soon Be Eligible for Driver's Licenses


ANNAPOLIS—Andrea Gonzales is the only licensed driver in her family of three, so for her, a weekday morning means waking up at 5:30 to shuttle her husband to work with their 5-year-old daughter in tow.

The new Maryland Highway Safety Act may change her family’s routine by allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Gonzales’s husband, Jaime, an undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua, can’t legally drive to pick up their daughter, Ana, from school at 3 p.m. Instead, the couple hired a babysitter to transport and care for Ana on most afternoons.

“My husband, we are working on getting him legalized, but until then I still need him to help me with the responsibilities,” Gonzales, of Silver Spring, said. “Our family needs him to be able to depend on himself, not to depend on me for everything.”

If Jaime had a driver’s license, Gonzales said, he could spend afternoons with his daughter, help her with homework, and get her ready for bed.

Set for a Wednesday hearing in Annapolis, the Maryland House bill and its companion bill in the Senate would repeal a provision of a 2009 law that prohibits people without Social Security numbers or lawful presence documents from renewing or obtaining driver’s licenses.

Licenses for undocumented drivers would carry a label, “Not for federal use,” preventing license holders from boarding planes or entering federal buildings.

The bill would also prevent all such licenses issued before 2009 from expiring in 2015 as state law now mandates.

Gonzalez, who testified at the Feb. 20 Senate hearing on the bill, plans to testify at Wednesday’s House hearing as well.

“Most surprising was all the support from the non-immigrant community,” Shola Ajayi, elections and advocacy specialist at Casa de Maryland, said of last month’s hearing.

He added that the bill would not only apply to illegal immigrants, but also to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who lack the documents necessary to obtain a license.

Members of Help Save Maryland, an anti-immigrant organization, also plan to testify at the House hearing.

“We will be coming out in force against this bill,” said Help Save Maryland director Brad Botwin, who contends that the legislation will make Maryland a magnet for illegal immigrants and put additional stress on Maryland’s social services.

In 2009, several states including Maryland put in place federal Real ID Act regulations requiring the Motor Vehicle Administration to verify the identity and legal status of all license applicants. The new Maryland legislation would repeal those MVA limitations.

Washington, New Mexico and Illinois are among the states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Maryland Democratic Delegate Jolene Ivey of Prince George’s County said policy in these other states helped inform her decision to push for the change.

For many people without proper documentation, driving without a license may be the only option, so it is practical to require those drivers to meet basic driving standards, said Ivey, lead bill sponsor.

“A lot of people simply are in a position where they can’t get around without a car. Not everybody has public transportation available. Legally they’re not supposed to drive, but we know that with the way their current situation is set up, it’s really hard to avoid,” she said.

Undocumented drivers seeking licenses will be required to meet the same MVA standards required of all drivers: a written test and an on-road driving skills test.

Botwin called Ivey “one of the worst delegates in Annapolis” whose bill was a “continued effort of her pandering to CASA of Maryland and the illegal immigrants in Prince George’s County.”

He has charged that road safety is compromised by the fact that Maryland’s written driving test can be taken in Spanish, yet street signs across the state are labeled in English.

But the Maryland Department of Transportation shares Ivey’s views that the enactment of the bill will have a positive impact on highway safety in part by ensuring that more vehicle operators can have on-file driving records.

“Licensing these individuals allows the Motor Vehicle Administration to track their driving histories and to address safety problems or concerns through administrative action taken against the driver’s license,” the Department of Transportation said in statement.

“People who think it’s some kind of danger to Maryland, I think that’s ridiculous,” Ivey said of the bill’s implications.

But Botwin argues that the danger lies in setting a precedent for the future.

“It empowers the illegal alien community to keep pushing for more and more,” he said.

Gonzales, though, said that reducing the chance of her family’s separation is a worthwhile cause.

“I think the biggest risk is my husband driving without a license. My fear is that something could happen to him. He could get arrested, and we don't want our family separated,” she said. “We have a 5 year old that we are raising together, and we want to continue to do that.”

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