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Originally published Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Corrected version

State says new driver's licensing rules foiling outsiders

In a state frequently criticized as a haven for illegal immigrants seeking driver's licenses, licensing officials in Washington believe stricter rules are discouraging those from out of state.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In a state frequently criticized as a haven for illegal immigrants seeking driver's licenses, licensing officials here believe stricter rules are discouraging those from out of state.

After noticing a three-year surge in the number of out-of-state license applicants who lacked Social Security numbers, the Washington Department of Licensing last November began to require stricter proof of state residency.

Those changes — and additional tweaks three months ago — appear to be driving some people away.

Among out-of-state drivers seeking Washington licenses this year, 8 percent lacked a Social Security number, down from 16 percent last year.

Wait times in many locations — particularly the busiest offices in and around Seattle — are also dropping, licensing officials say.

"We believe that our process stopped a lot of people from trying to come here from another state where they weren't eligible," said Brad Benfield, department spokesman.

State law requires applicants for a driver's license to live in the state. It doesn't require them to be in the country legally but does ask them to provide a Social Security number if they have one. Those who don't — including some foreign workers here legally — may sign a declaration to that effect.

Unable under state law to require legal immigration presence in the U.S., department officials say they are enforcing rules set forth in existing state law. "The law says you have to be a Washington resident," Benfield said. "We want to try to maintain the integrity of our services and enforce that."

No status screening

Washington remains one of only a few states where illegal immigrants can still obtain driver's licenses.

New Mexico still grants licenses to illegal immigrants, although lawmakers there are wrangling with changing that law. The state of Alaska requires applicants to be legally in the U.S. or citizens of Canada.

And in Utah, illegal immigrants may obtain a license for driving only, not for ID purposes.

For the sixth-straight year, a citizens initiative that would have required Washington's licensing department to verify an applicant's lawful presence in the U.S. before issuing a driver's license failed to collect enough signatures. A similar attempt to change the law failed in the last session of the state Legislature.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter immigration controls, recently ranked Washington the third most friendly destination for illegal immigrants, citing its permissive driver's-license law.

In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as one state after another stopped issuing licenses to illegal immigrants, Washington began seeing an increase in out-of-state residents signing the Social Security declarations.

Some entrepreneurial souls saw a business opportunity — selling licenses to people from out of state.

Three years ago, state officials began requiring proof of residency for all applicants coming from out of state, but stopped last June after they found it an inconvenience for many of the legitimate ones.

In November, state licensing officials again began requiring proof of state residency, this time for those who lacked a Social Security number. They could provide a water bill or bank documents, for example, which department technicians would then scrutinize to ensure validity.

The department also stopped accepting cellphone and cable bills — accounts that could be easily opened and later canceled.

Process reordered

In recent months, licensing staff noticed a gradual decline in the number of Social Security declarations but realized something else, too: They were processing applications for people who eventually would not be able to prove residency here. Most such people simply didn't return for follow-up appointments — suggesting that the addresses they had provided were bogus.

Anecdotally, licensing officials also discovered that some people were shopping licensing offices for more accommodating ones.

"We were spending unnecessary time processing what turned out to be fraudulent applications," Benfield said. "It was a cumbersome system."

In April, the department tweaked the process again, changing the order of the steps in which it processed applications.

It has stopped accepting residency documents on the first visit from anyone without a Social Security number. Instead, it accepts their application form and proof of ID and takes their photograph upfront. Officials then mail a letter to those applicants with further instructions on how to schedule an appointment to verify residency and what to bring to that appointment.

The new process is designed to ensure that technicians don't waste time on documents that may not be valid. Additionally, facial-recognition technology helps ensure that applicants aren't applying at multiple offices.

"We are now starting to get down to the levels of declarations we were seeing in 2007," Benfield said.

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

Information in this article, originally published July 15, 2011, was corrected July 16, 2011. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 9 percent of out-of-state drivers seeking Washington licenses this year lacked a Social Security number. The story should have said 8 percent.

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