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Originally published August 13, 2010 at 8:53 PM | Page modified August 13, 2010 at 9:28 PM

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More immigrants getting driver's licenses in Washington

Three states — Washington, New Mexico and Utah — allow illegal immigrants to get licenses because their laws do not require proof of citizenship or legal residency. An Associated Press analysis found that those states have seen a surge in immigrants seeking IDs in recent months.

The Associated Press

Carlos Hernandez packed up his family and left Arizona after the state passed its crackdown on illegal immigration. The illegal immigrant's new home near Seattle offered something Arizona could not: a driver's license.

Three states — Washington, New Mexico and Utah — allow illegal immigrants to get licenses because their laws do not require proof of citizenship or legal residency. An Associated Press analysis found that those states have seen a surge in immigrants seeking IDs in recent months, a trend experts attribute to crackdowns on illegal immigration in Arizona and elsewhere.

"It's difficult being undocumented and not having an identification," said Hernandez, of Puebla, Mexico. "You can use the Mexican ID, but people look down on it."

An American driver's license is a requirement for many jobs and also often is necessary to open a bank account or rent a home.

The immigration debate has thrown a spotlight on the license issue.

Supporters note, among other things, that licensed drivers are more apt to carry vehicle insurance. Opponents insist the laws attract illegal immigrants and criminals.

"Washington state and New Mexico have been magnet states for the fraudulent document brokers, human traffickers and alien smugglers for years," said Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C.

Zimmer said there is mounting evidence that the spike in license applications is a result of pressure on immigrants in states such as Arizona and Oklahoma, where police have been authorized to help enforce federal immigration laws.

Republican lawmakers in New Mexico and Washington state have pushed to tighten the laws in recent years, only to be thwarted by Democrats.

The issue is less heated in Utah, where illegal-immigrant licenses carry only driving privileges. People cannot use the IDs to board a plane, get a job or buy alcohol, for example.

The AP analysis of data in the three states revealed some striking numbers: The rate of licenses issued to immigrants during the 10 weeks that followed approval of the Arizona law reflected a 60 percent increase over the annual average for last year.

By comparison, the rate of licenses issued to nonimmigrants during the same period increased modestly.

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Among other findings:

• Washington granted 3,200 licenses to people from outside the U.S. through the first six months of this year, exceeding the pace of 5,992 for all of 2009.

• New Mexico issued 10,257 licenses to immigrants through June, compared with 13,481 for all of 2009. The pace has intensified since April, when neighboring Arizona passed its immigration law. The figures include illegal immigrants and legal residents from outside the U.S.

• New Mexico issued about 417 licenses a week to immigrants from the day after Arizona passed its law through July 1. That is a big jump from the 323 a week it was issuing from Jan. 1 to the day before the law passed.

• Utah issued 41,000 licenses to illegal immigrants for 2010 through June 7, compared with 43,429 for all of 2008, the most recent figures available.

Hernandez said he and his family moved to Burien because he and his wife were spooked by the Arizona law that requires officers to check a person's immigration status when enforcing other laws.

A federal judge has put most of the law on hold, saying it may be unconstitutional.

Hernandez said he knows other illegal immigrants who considered New Mexico, but he and others thought Washington would be safer.

"I know that it's not OK for people who come here to cross the border, but there's people that come here that want to contribute ... that want to follow the rules," said Hernandez, 31, who has a 2-year-old daughter.

Recent fraud cases in New Mexico and Washington show some people are trying to exploit the rules.

An Illinois man is accused of driving two Polish immigrants from Chicago to Albuquerque last month in a scheme to charge them $1,000 each for help getting driver's licenses, according to a criminal complaint.

In Washington, the FBI was tipped that people from across the country were coming to the state because of its license law.

Three people, including one current and one former state Licensing Department employee — one in Bellevue, one in Federal Way — were arrested in June in a case dealing with the sale of identification documents to illegal immigrants.

While the state does not require proof of legal immigration, applicants must have proof of residency, and that's where the scheme allegedly focused.

Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, sponsored an unsuccessful bill last year in the Washington Legislature seeking to require proof of citizenship to get a license. "We don't think we're asking for much," Campbell said.

In New Mexico, Motor Vehicle Division Director Michael Sandoval cautioned that it's impossible to identify any specific cause-and-effect linking the Arizona law to illegal immigrants relocating in New Mexico because the state does not require clerks to document where immigrants moved from. And clerks cannot ask if someone is in the country illegally.

Washington state immigrant advocate David Ayala said it's better for drivers to have licenses, especially from a public-safety standpoint.

"The people who are driving in the streets need to be tested that they have the knowledge and ability to be on the highway," said Ayala, organizing director of a group called OneAmerica.

Associated Press writers Barry Massey, Rachel La Corte

and Brock Vergakis contributed

to this report.

Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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