Lawmakers in Washington state - one of two states in the country that still let illegal immigrants obtain driver's licenses - are moving forward with bills that would ask for proof of legal residency.
About half a dozen bills have been introduced in the current session to attempt changes to driver’s license requirements. Lawmakers held a hearing on one of the bills Thursday – the first time that has happened in years.
The unprecedented traction has sparked an immigration debate in Olympia – hitting a high point Thursday when a committee hearing was adjourned early after protesters began yelling that “brown” people were being targeted.
Supporters of the stricter immigration rules applauded the lawmakers’ efforts, saying that closing access to licenses would stop a magnet for illegal immigrants to move to Washington. Others say Washington’s rules allow for identity fraud and other public safety concerns.
“Not all illegals come here just to work and look for a better life. Some come here to destroy us and our way of life. Driver’s licenses give legitimacy,” Bob West of Yakima said to the Senate Transportation Committee.
Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, say that cutting access to driver’s licenses will raise insurance costs because illegal immigrants will be unable to obtain insurance, creating a larger pool of uninsured drivers.
They also said that the estimated cost of the bill – about $1.5 million in the next two-year budget – is too expensive in a year that the state faces a deficit.
“This bill causes terror and a climate of fear in our immigrant members across the state. These are hardworking, tax-paying Washington residents who are working the fields every day to support one of our largest industries in the state and many other industries our state desperately needs,” said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica. “This bill, we think, represents a misguided attempt to address issues related to our broken immigration system.”
The bill heard Thursday was sponsored by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. It would require people applying for a driver’s license to show proof of Washington residency and a valid Social Security number. If the person does not have a Social Security number, proof of legal residency is required. Under the proposal, the Department of Licensing also is required to verify that a person’s address and Social Security numbers are valid.
“In order to work in this country, you have to have a Social Security number, and we’re just asking for the Social Security number,” Haugen said at the hearing. “I would hope people aren’t working without Social Security numbers. Because if you are, you’re part of the underground network, which really creates a lot of problem for a lot of workers.”
Another bill introduced this year establishes a two-tier system in which illegal immigrants would be able to get a driver’s license but couldn’t use it as identification. A similar system has been put in place in Utah.
New Mexico is the only other state in the country where driver’s licenses are available to illegal immigrants. The Associated Press reported last summer that three states – Washington, New Mexico and Utah – were seeing surges in the number of immigrants seeking IDs.
According to a 2010 Pew Hispanic Center study, estimates of the illegal immigrant population in Washington state range from 140,000 to 325,000. The state’s population is 6.7 million residents.