Now Playing:



Push In Washington For Drivers' License Citizenship Checks

Washington is one of the last states in the nation that lets illegal immigrants get a driver’s license. By contrast, Oregon — as of 2008 — requires proof of citizenship or legal status.

Now some Washington lawmakers say it’s time to get tough. They believe illegal immigrants from other states are exploiting Washington’s looser standards for getting a drivers’ license.

Take a number at the DMV office in Lacey, Washington and you’ll see a curious sign: If you want an enhanced drivers’ license — one that lets in you into Canada — you must provide proof of citizenship.

But if you want a regular old license? The DMV does not require that you present a birth certificate, passport, green card or other proof that you’re in this country legally. 

Liz Luce: “We do not have the authority from the legislature to do that.”

Liz Luce directs Washington’s Department of Licensing.

A little history here. After the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the federal Real ID Act. At the time, Washington lawmakers viewed it as an expensive — if not intrusive — unfunded mandate. So in 2007 they passed a law prohibiting the Washington Department of Licensing from complying with the federal mandates.

But now a growing number of lawmakers are concerned Washington will soon have a dubious distinction: the last state in the nation to not verify “lawful presence” to get a license to drive.

So now several state lawmakers including Republican Representative Mike Armstrong have introduced legislation to require Licensing to start doing those checks.

Mike Armstrong: “What’s happening in Washington is we are getting an influx of people that are coming in and getting licenses from Washington state that they use all across the country as forms of identification.”

In fact, last year three Washington Department of Licensing employees were busted by the FBI for helping non-Washington residents get official IDs.

David House knows all about drivers’ license scams. He’s with the Oregon DMV. He says up until a couple of years ago, Oregon was also a magnet state.

David House: “There were businesses that were engaged in actually advertising in other states for people to come get a license here in Oregon, they would be provided a false address. And then they would get a license here in Oregon and would move back to their home state.”

That spurred the Oregon legislature two years ago to pass a law that requires the DMV to check a would-be driver’s citizenship status.

Back at the drivers’ license office in Lacey, Washington you hear a mix of opinions about whether lawmakers in Olympia should follow Oregon down this path.

Sandra Miller, for one, says yes.

Sandra Miller: “There are illegals from other states that do come to Washington to get their drivers’ license and I don’t think that that’s okay with me.”

But Janet Sears thinks getting tough could backfire.

Janet Sears: “If you don’t license people because they aren’t legally in the country then are you inviting them to drive without a license and that’s much more dangerous I think.”

State Representative Armstrong aims to address that concern in his proposed legislation. He would have Department of Licensing create a two-tier system.

Would-be drivers who couldn’t prove they’re in the country legally would still qualify for a drivers’ license, but they would get the stamp: “not valid for identification purposes.”

Problem solved, right? Not so says Jorge Baron with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He says put a stamp like that on the drivers’ license and illegal immigrants will risk driving without one.

Jorge Baron: “Because I think people would be afraid that would be labeling them as undocumented and therefore raise attention and it’s important to realize that we’re talking about people who are already in our communities, who have been living many of them for many, many years and the question is do we want them licensed and insured or not.”

Despite concerns like this, the chairs of Washington’s House and Senate Transportation committees — both Democrats — are signaling the legislature will take up this issue this session.

Even without a mandate to check citizenship status, Washington’s Department of Licensing is using technology to catch would-be scammers. The agency now uses facial recognition software and a social security verification system when screening drivers’ license applicants.

Applicants who can’t provide a valid Social Security number can get a 60-day permit to drive if they provide additional documentation as to their identity and proof they live in Washington.

The 60-day window gives Licensing the time to verify that information.

As for DMV’s checking citizenship status, one key selling point has been national security. The Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License notes that most of the 9-11 hijackers carried valid state drivers’ licenses.

But Republican state lawmakers in Washington, like Rep. Mike Armstrong, have other motivations too. Armstrong is concerned that illegal immigrants are using Washington drivers’ licenses to qualify for state assistance programs.

Washington is also a motor-voter state. That means you can register to vote when you get your license.

Armstrong’s proposed law instructs the Secretary of State: “If United States citizenship has not been established (by the DMV), the secretary may not issue a voter registration.”

Currently, when registering to vote, an applicant must swear under penalty of perjury that they are a US citizen. But the Secretary of State’s office says it currently has no way of verifying that oath.

More News

More OPB