This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
What happens in Arizona doesn’t stay in Arizona.
That’s the conclusion some experts draw from the exploding number of immigrants seeking driver’s licenses in three states.
Washington, Utah and New Mexico are the only states in the nation that permit illegal immigrants to get licenses. All three are seeing a big surge in the wake of Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Reporters for The Associated Press found one of the Arizona exiles just north of here, in Burien. Carlos Hernandez packed up his whole family after Arizona passed its new law and came to Washington. He cited access to identification as a key reason.
What’s more, crooks are making a lot of money exploiting the already loose rules.
In June, the FBI arrested three people – two of them Department of Licensing employees – for schemes to sell driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. One suspect was allegedly charging as much as $3,000 a person to supply an address to use during the license-application process, the answers to the written driver’s test and the inside track on license approval.
The danger is not that illegal immigrants are getting driver’s licenses. The danger is that they are using those licenses for a lot more than driving. A driver’s license will get someone on an airplane. A license and a fake Social Security card will get them a job.
The best answer is secure driver’s licenses, the kind envisioned by the REAL ID Act passed in the wake of 9/11. It would require states to verify legal status before issuing licenses.
But the law, which originally was bogged down by states’ concerns over costs, faces an uncertain future: President Obama nominated one of its foes, Janet Napolitano, to head Homeland Security. She’s pushed back the deadline to comply.
But even if REAL ID were in force in all 50 states today, many of this country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants would remain behind the wheel.
States face the real-world problem of how best to protect the public. Driver’s licenses provide access to liability insurance and some modicum of assurance that the holder knows the rules of the road.
More states may need to adopt a two-tier approach similar to Utah’s. There, drivers who cannot prove their legal status are issued a “driving privilege card,” which permits them access to the roads but cannot be used as identification – not even to buy beer.
Utah’s card has proved popular. The state handed out nearly 44,000 of them in 2008 – and is on pace to issue twice as many this year since it, like Washington, is getting bombarded with immigrants fleeing crackdowns elsewhere.
Apparently, not all illegal immigrants seek drivers’ licenses to game the system. Some really do just want to drive legally. It’s ultimately in a state’s best interests to ensure they can.