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State License Policy Impact Goes Federal

Homeland Security says it will review border-crossing rules since California will let illegal residents have driver's permits.

September 10, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — California's decision to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants could lead to new federal policies that deny citizens the convenience of reentering the country merely by showing a license, a senior Homeland Security official said Tuesday.

Federal officials said they are reviewing the current policy because California is the most populous state and one that has been a magnet for illegal immigration.

"Certainly, we need to review the policy of our inspectors at the border and their reliance upon driver's licenses," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security. "I think that would be the biggest repercussion."

The closest thing to nationally accepted identity cards, driver's licenses have long been a focus in the debate over illegal immigration.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also called attention to the security weaknesses of licenses. Several of the hijackers obtained Virginia licenses by giving a false address. A congressional report released Tuesday concluded that it remains relatively easy to acquire licenses with a phony ID.

One possible alternative to relying on driver's licenses would be to require all returning travelers to show passports. But Hutchinson, who oversees immigration, said border inspectors would not single out travelers from California.

"We are not going to say [that] we are going to have closer scrutiny on Californians," Hutchinson told reporters. "We would simply look at our overall policy and what our inspectors need to be checking.

"If driver's licenses are given to people who are illegally in the country, then that puts an extra burden and difficulty on our inspectors at the border," he added.

Americans returning from countries in the Western Hemisphere do not need a passport to reenter the United States, although one is recommended, said Danielle Sheahan, an immigration spokeswoman. In practice, many citizens do not carry passports when traveling to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. Some take their birth certificates.

Gov. Gray Davis last week signed legislation that permits illegal immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses. Thirteen states accept Mexican consular identification cards for issuing driver's licenses, usually with other documentation. (Those states are Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.)

California's Department of Motor Vehicles is still deciding what documentation will be required for the licenses. Consular ID cards, which carry the bearer's name, U.S. address and photo, are not valid immigration documents, but are accepted by many agencies around the country as valid ID.

California's giant population puts it in a class by itself, officials said.

"With 2 million undocumented immigrants in California, that raises it to a national concern," said Bill Strassberger, a Homeland Security spokesman. "Changes in states that have much smaller populations might not be noticed."

Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the Bush administration should take California's action as a signal to put immigration reform back on track. Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush was pursuing an immigration deal with Mexico that would have created a new guest-worker program and legalized millions already here.

"It's a clarion call that there needs to be a fundamental review of our immigration policies," said Meissner, now at the Migration Policy Institute think tank in Washington. "Because of a vacuum at the national level, states are being forced to take action to deal with daily consequences of large numbers of undocumented people."

Meissner warned of a backlash from citizens and legal residents if the administration suspends the acceptance of driver's licenses at the border.

"Even people who have passports, who go back and forth every day, would find it an inconvenience to be carrying their passports," she said. "It would create a very sudden burden of passport applications and a lot of inconvenience for a lot of Americans."

Another sort of backlash was brewing in Congress, where a prominent advocate of immigration restrictions launched a campaign that could strip California of tens of millions of dollars in federal highway funding.

Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.) introduced legislation to withhold up to 25% of federal highway funds from any state that has passed laws allowing illegal immigrants to get licenses. California is getting a total of $2.5 billion this year, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Tancredo's bill calls for initially withholding 5% of a state's allotment, increasing in equal increments to reach 25% after five years.

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