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Originally published Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 10:02 PM

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Bills would prevent illegal immigrants from getting state licenses

More than half a dozen bills have been introduced in the Legislature to require those applying for a driver's license to first prove their legal presence in this country. It's a record number of bills on the issue — some, for the first time, proposed by Democrats.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington could soon leave its place in an exclusive club of states that still grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

More than half a dozen bills have been introduced in the Legislature to require those applying for a driver's license to first prove their legal presence in this country.

Who gets or should get a license to drive in Washington has been a hot-button topic for some time, but never before have so many bills been filed in the Legislature to address it. And for the first time, Democrats are authoring a few of the measures, making it far more likely that one might actually pass.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Democrat from Camano Island, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee where the bills are assigned, has introduced her own measure — Senate Bill 5407. She said the bipartisan bill will be the one that moves through the Legislature.

It seeks to clean up state law around the issuance of licenses and state ID cards to ensure that they are not granted to out-of-state residents or those in the country unlawfully.

"We want to address the guys who fly through this state to get driver's licenses," Haugen said. "And we are going to require people to have a Social Security number to address the illegal-immigrant problem."

A driver's license is a basic form of identification, used for everything from cashing a check to boarding a domestic flight. More than 5.1 million are in use in Washington, according to the state Department of Licensing (DOL).

States began wrestling with the driver's-license question after the terror attacks of Sept. 11. At that time, nine states were still issuing licenses to illegal immigrants. Washington is now alone with New Mexico in doing so; Utah offers a license that illegal immigrants can use to drive but not as identification.

Recognizing that many out-of-staters were coming to Washington to obtain licenses with no intention of living here, the DOL in November stepped up its proof-of-residency requirements for those lacking a Social Security number.

Officials believed most were in the country illegally and were coming here from states that would not issue them licenses. But that administrative tweak did not change state law, and illegal immigrants who live in the state can still get a license.

Many believe the state law has remained unchanged, in large part, because the state's agricultural industry employs large numbers of illegal immigrants vital to that industry's survival.

Scott Dilley, public-policy analyst with the Washington Farm Bureau, said the organization is neutral on the bills in the Legislature.

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"We encourage a balance between the rule of law on one hand and human dignity on the other," Dilley said. The industry has long supported immigration changes that would provide a way for growers to get a legal workforce, he said. "The driver-license bills are just one facet of this very complex issue."

Those who would deny licenses to all illegal immigrants say it's not just about national security, but it's about money as well.

"Illegal aliens are able to obtain Washington driver's licenses and from there they can gain employment, public benefits and other taxpayer-funded benefits," said Craig Keller, who heads a group called Respect Washington, which is preparing to back an initiative for the sixth straight year to discourage illegal immigration in the state.

"We are attracting a population to the state of Washington that distorts the state budget, makes teachers scream about overcrowded classrooms and absconds with congressional seats."

But immigrant advocates say that denying licenses to people is simply bad public policy and that people who aren't legally licensed will drive anyway — untrained and uninsured — creating a public-safety problem.

Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, an advocacy group, expressed disappointment that Democrats joined Republicans in "leading a fight that abandons the safety of all Washington's residents ... ."

"We've fought this bill every year, and this state and legislators have recognized every time, as I hope they will this year, the importance of putting public safety over hopping aboard the bandwagon," she said.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal REAL ID Act of 2005 required states to verify that driver-license applicants were either U.S. citizens or legal residents.

Most states complied, but Washington and a number of others bowed out, calling it an unfunded federal mandate. Washington instead worked with the Department of Homeland Security to pilot an enhanced driver's license that uses facial-recognition technology and is available only to citizens.

State Sen. Val Stevens, a Republican from Arlington, who was on a Real ID Act work group, said other states that were issuing licenses to illegal immigrants "cleaned up their act and became more careful about whom they issued licenses to."

Over the years Stevens has introduced measures to bring that about in Washington, and this year she has introduced a pair of bills — one requiring proof of citizenship for those applying for new driver's licenses and one for those who are renewing.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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