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Virginia Cracks Down on Drivers Licenses for Illegal Immigrants

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell stands in front of a projection of the track of Hurricane Earl as he adresses the media inside the Virginia Emergency Operations Center in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010. (AP)

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is cracking down on immigrants' use of a certain federal document to get state driver's licenses in the wake of a deadly car crash blamed on an immigrant facing deportation.

McDonnell on Tuesday ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to no longer consider federal employment authorization documents as evidence that a person is in the country legally after it was used by an driver who allegedly was driving drunk this summer and killed a nun, critically injuring two others in her order. The DMV will still accept about 20 other federal documents as proof of legal status.

"We must ensure that documents accepted as proof of legal presence are reliable," McDonnell, a Republican, said in a news release. "Virginia law is clear in the requirement that an individual be lawfully in the United States to be eligible for an identification card or to have the privilege to drive."

The order comes after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli advised police across Virginia last month that they have the authority to ask about the immigration status of anyone they've stopped or arrested. His advisory opinion, which lacks the legal force of a court ruling, would give Virginia officers many of the same powers assigned to police in Arizona under a new law there intended to crack down on illegal immigration.

The American Civil Liberties Union urged police to ignore Cuccinelli's guidance, saying it lacks any legal foundation and conjures constitutional conflicts.

In the case driving McDonnell's recent move, Carlos Martinelly Montano, a 23-year-old Bolivian national with drunken driving convictions in 2007 and 2008, used the federal employment authorization document to get a license even though he faced deportation proceedings, authorities say.

A grand jury indicted Montano on a murder charge that could land him in prison for 40 years if he's convicted, a Washington radio station reported Tuesday.

Prince William police chief Charlie Deane last week asked federal authorities to stop issuing employment authorization cards, known as I-766 documents, to immigrants who face deportation. The cards are issued by the Citizenship and Immigration Service arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

An advocate for immigrants said the governor's response was political pandering that ignores what she said was the problem of scant punishment for repeat drunken drivers.

"The governor should be asking why he (Montano) was released from jail after serving just 20 days instead of the full 364," Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a Richmond-based lobbyist on behalf of immigrants' rights. Montano had been sentenced to a serve a year on his second drunken driving conviction.

"The real situation here is we're not enforcing our drunk driving laws," she said.

Montano got his I-766 card, in January 2009 as federal deportation actions were pending. He presented the card to the DMV to establish legal presence in the U.S. But he did not have a Virginia license on Aug. 1 when his car slammed head-on into a car carrying three Benedictine nuns on their way to a retreat.

Sister Denise Mosier was killed in the crash. Sisters Connie Ruth Lupton and Charlotte Lange were critically injured.

Gastanaga said the federally issued cards are not given to illegal immigrants, and that they are merely records with information about the bearer's physical appearance such as height, weight, hair and eye color information.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.