Union Tribune

September 12, 2003

Calif. license law for illegals worries feds
'Integrity ... security' of documents cited


WASHINGTON Homeland security officials are raising concerns about a new California law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver licenses, saying they will review entry policies at U.S. borders, where inspectors often rely on licenses to confirm citizenship.

"If you do not have integrity in the driver's licenses that are issued (and in) the security of those documents, then it really undermines the whole premise of allowing U.S. citizens to travel abroad and come back with limited proof of U.S. citizenship, without a passport," Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of border and transportation security, told reporters this week.

Another border state, New Mexico, started issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants in June. The California law goes into effect Jan. 1.

A spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis, who signed the legislation last week, called the concerns "a red herring."

"Driver's licenses shouldn't be considered proof of citizenship. They just provide a right to drive a vehicle after passing a test," spokesman Steve Maviglio said. "In fact, millions of legal residents who are not citizens already possess driver's licenses in California."

Hutchinson's comments appeared to contradict what a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said Sept. 5, the day Davis signed the legislation. Spokeswoman Lauren Mack said the new law won't affect operations at border crossings because immigration inspectors use several factors to determine whether someone should be allowed into the country.

"A driver's license does not establish or indicate lawful U.S. immigration status," Mack said. "It doesn't grant a foreign national the right to enter or remain in the United States. It doesn't establish work eligibility."

Taking Hutchinson's view, Bill Strassberger, another spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said yesterday that border inspectors will "have to question whether or not a person holding a California driver's license is a citizen of the United States."

"That increases difficulty for performing their job, so we need to review this in order to provide the appropriate guidance to our officers on how to proceed," he said.

Last week, as Davis prepared to sign the new law, the department voiced no concerns about it.

Asked why officials didn't express misgivings when the controversial and highly publicized move was still being debated by California legislators, Strassberger said driver license policies are a state issue and "not something we really want to get involved in."

The issue has become embroiled in the effort to recall Davis, and a group of conservative Republicans has launched a petition drive to overturn the law.

Maviglio said the new law is "exactly what was on the books in the state until 1995. Federal border officials never complained about it then and shouldn't complain about it now."

Undocumented immigrants will be required to have a federal taxpayer identification number or other state-approved ID when they apply for a license. But California lawmakers removed other security provisions from the measure.

Concerns about the integrity of driver licenses often called a "gateway document" for establishing bank accounts, boarding airplanes and moving easily around the country were heightened by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The hijackers easily obtained licenses, leading to calls for tighter, more standardized procedures for issuing them.