WASHINGTON – If a Virginia congressman gets his way, state motor vehicle departments will require proof from non-citizens that they are legally in the United States before issuing them drivers licenses.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., announced Tuesday that he will introduce legislation when Congress returns from summer recess next week that would require foreign nationals to show proof of a valid, non-expired visa before they are granted a license or a state identification card.
"The reforms I propose would help prevent terrorists from obtaining licenses from the DMV and traveling freely around the country," Cantor told Fox News.
The bill, one of several introduced this year in reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, would tie the expiration of the driver's license or ID card with the expiration of the visa, a move that proponents said would help to prevent illegal aliens from overstaying their visit and blending into society.
At least seven of the Sept. 11 hijackers had collectively obtained dozens of fraudulent drivers licenses in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere, mostly because those states do not require proof of legal status when issuing licenses.
But some groups are not happy with the prospect of new restrictions on aliens, and not all states appear willing to get on board if a federal law is passed.
"History has shown that laws requiring individuals to show proof of legal status or citizenship result in increased discrimination based on national origin and/or appearance," concludes a report issued by the Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza in May.
"With respect to responsibility for enforcing immigration law, state departments of motor vehicles should not be authorized to check the immigration status of driver's license applicants," said the report.
"The Departments of Motor Vehicles' role should be to ensure that all individuals who drive on U.S. roads are properly licensed and insured, not to act as [Immigration and Naturalization Service] agents verifying immigration status," it reads.
That argument has been used effectively in California, where Gov. Gray Davis is about to sign a bill that would allow an estimated 20,000 illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses, provided they can prove residency in the state for at least 15 months and pass background checks to ensure they aren’t fugitives.
Supporters of that bill say most California illegal aliens are farm workers, mostly from Mexico, who are working, paying taxes and even going to school, but are driving without licenses or insurance and are a danger to the roads. Giving them licenses would make those roads safer.
"That’s counterintuitive, saying that people who snub and disregard your immigration laws are going to obey your traffic laws once they get a license," countered David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Instead, Ray has been working with groups to push for universal license standards and shared databases.
The Cantor proposal, Ray said, is "a necessary component in a system where you are trying to keep someone who is here illegally from getting a document that is so important towards establishing a life here."
The Cantor bill also seeks to curb the ease with which illegal aliens are able to forge critical documents to obtain drivers licenses, Social Security numbers, passports and the like.
The INS has estimated that approximately 40 percent of illegal immigrants are here on expired visas, while 60 percent crossed the borders without permission. It also estimates that 420,000 of the 1 million immigrants who come here each year are illegal.
Pam Goheen, a spokeswoman for the Virginia DMV, said the agency has "yet to determine" the impact of Cantor’s bill, but said that the agency now only requires applicants for drivers licenses to produce two forms of identification and proof of residency in the state -- but nothing to ensure that they are in the country legally.
The agency, however, has stepped up efforts to be more vigilant in screening applicants based on current laws, she said.