Illegal Immigrants Will Be Allowed to Obtain Driverís Licenses
By Sewell Chan
Fulfilling a campaign promise, Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced today that residents will be able to apply for state driverís licenses without regard to immigration status. Applicants for driverís licenses will no longer be required to provide a Social Security number or show that they are eligible for one. Instead, they will be allowed to provide foreign passports, previous state driverís licenses and ďother valid and verifiable documentsĒ to prove their identity.
Officials in New York estimate that there are tens of thousands of undocumented, unlicensed and uninsured drivers in New York. Mr. Spitzer announced the change along with new security measures that he said would make the licensing system more tamper-proof. Currently, eight other states ó Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington ó do not require drivers to prove legal status in order to obtain a license, according to the Spitzer administration.
Mr. Spitzer said that expanding access to driverís licenses would improve traffic safety and lower auto insurance rates. But the move has spurred debate among opponents of illegal immigration, who believe that relaxing licensing standards effectively encourages undocumented immigrants to enter the country.
State law requires license applicants to prove their identity, date of birth, and fitness to drive, and to provide a Social Security number. The last requirement was added in 1995 as part of an effort to punish parents who were not paying child support. In 2002, a state regulation was adopted to allow applicants who are ineligible for a Social Security number to also apply for driverís licenses.
But at that point, Gov. George E. Pataki, Mr. Spitzerís predecessor, issued a policy that stipulated that the only way to define ďineligibilityĒ would be through obtaining a formal letter of ineligibility from the Social Security Administration, a letter that is only obtainable by individuals who have legal immigration status. That step made it effectively impossible for illegal immigrants to obtain driverís licenses.
Mr. Spitzer said that the Department of Motor Vehicles would introduce new anti-fraud measures, including document verification technology, photograph comparison tools and trained staff members with ďexpertise in foreign-sourced identity documents.Ē The department will also propose that license applicants be required to prove that they reside in New York State; currently, 27 states have such residency requirements.
The change will take place in two phases. In the first phase, the Department of Motor Vehicle letters will immediately send about 152,000 New Yorkers, who at one point had (or currently have) a driverís license, but have been unable to renew it. Those people can apply to renew their license at the end of the year and will be required to prove their identity, date of birth and fitness to drive.
The second phase, to begin six to eight months from now, will open the driverís license application process to all New Yorkers regardless of immigration status.