March 17, 2010

Driver's license residency rule debated

PAUL CARRIER

— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A plan that would prevent Maine from issuing driver's licenses to nonresidents is winning praise from some lawmakers and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, but critics say the proposal either goes too far or not far enough.

The Legislature's Transportation Committee will take up the issue today during a public hearing on a task force report that says license applicants should have to prove that they live in Maine. Because the state doesn't require that now, it is criticized as being too lax in issuing licenses, a key for of identification.

Although the plan under review in the Legislature would require proof of Maine residency, it would not force applicants to document that they are legal residents of the United States.

U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby said she has prosecuted two cases in which people brought illegal immigrants to Maine so they could get driver's licenses. Silsby said the defendants were charged with transporting illegal aliens and pleaded guilty.

Dunlap said Wednesday that the proposal is designed to fight fraud and deter crime, not to go after illegal immigrants. He also said nonresidents hold ''far less than one percent'' of the state's 1 million driver's licenses.

The federal government lacks clear rules on what kinds of documents prove legal residency, Dunlap said, so the state ''should really be focusing on the things we can control,'' such as whether license applicants actually live in the state.

Dunlap said the Legislature's passage of a law last year opting out of a federal identity card program prevents him from doing anything that could be interpreted as complying with the Real ID law, including pushing for proof of legal residency for Maine driver's licenses.

Rep. Boyd Marley, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said Wednesday that he supports the residency change.

John Connors of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement said he has no problem with the plan because it would not pry into the legal status of immigrants.

Forcing applicants to prove that they are in this country legally would create the illusion of security without providing it and would be a form of harassment, Connors said.

Besides, determining a person's immigration status is not the state's job, he said.

But some critics say the proposed change is not tough enough precisely because it would stop short of checking legal status. Maine is one of only eight states that doesn't have ''lawful presence'' requirements for driver's licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

''I think our national security is a compelling public interest,'' and the state should do its part to crack down on people who might pose a threat to the country, said House Minority Leader Joshua Tardy, R-Newport.

The state should issue licenses only to American citizens and to visitors who have ''proof that they're here legally,'' Tardy said.

To impose a residency requirement without taking that extra step, he said, would apply ''a Band-Aid where surgery is needed.''

Robert Casimiro of Mainers for a Sensible Immigration Policy agrees with Tardy that the proposal is too weak. The Maine Civil Liberties Union argues that the plan is a bad idea for a different reason.

Some legal residents -- including poor people, the elderly, the homeless and abuse victims -- might have a hard time producing leases, bills or other documents to show that they live in Maine, said Shenna Bellows of the MCLU.

''We are concerned about any requirement that would discriminate against any class of people,'' Bellows said, including Maine residents who are ''living on the margin.''

Gov. John Baldacci ''supports tightening restrictions on driver's licenses'' because he believes there are ''too many loopholes,'' said David Farmer, his spokesman.

Farmer said Baldacci has yet to decide whether the proposed change goes far enough, because it would let the secretary of state set the standards for determining residency instead of spelling them out in state law.

Staff Writer Paul Carrier can be contacted at 622-7511 or at:

pcarrier@pressherald.com

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