TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Jeb Bush (search) endorsed a bill to allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, saying they are in the state anyway and officials should accept that fact.
The bill he is backing has enough safeguards that it would ensure terrorists are not getting licenses, Bush said Monday.
"We shouldn't allow them to come into the country to begin with, but once they're here, what do you do? Do you basically say that they're lepers to society? That they don't exist?" he asked. "A policy that ignores them is a policy of denial."
The issue comes up just four months after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), a fellow Republican, fulfilled a major campaign promise by repealing a law that would have allowed an estimated 2 million illegal immigrant drivers there to begin applying for licenses.
Opponents of the California law said it would have posed a threat to national security because there weren't sufficient background checks. Some also argued providing licenses to undocumented immigrants rewarded illegal behavior, but Schwarzenegger himself has not ruled out backing a law with tighter safeguards.
Bush, the president's brother, said he "would prefer to have our borders be secure, that we deport people when they are found to be here illegally." But he added: "That's not a responsibility of the state. We are prohibited from being a part of that."
He called the license "the one document they need to be able to function."
Undocumented aliens seeking licenses would be fingerprinted and required to show identification such as an employee ID card or taxpayer number, bill sponsor Sen. Rudy Garcia (search) said Tuesday.
Consulates would have to provide criminal background checks for applicants. The licenses would only be valid for two years and could only be used in Florida, and those seeking them have to prove they own or are leasing a car, said Garcia, a Republican.
He said there are possibly hundreds of thousands of immigrants driving without a license in Florida right now and they may not have insurance or know the state's safety standards.
"In some cases, these people may be taking their children to school and they may be doing it without a driver's license," he said. "They may be going to a doctor or a drug store or supermarket. The state ... is basically telling these folks to drive illegally."
Bush's legal office has been discussing the issue of background checks with consulates from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
Elsewhere, Illinois lawmakers last week overwhelming rejected letting illegal immigrants obtain driver's licenses. Arizona legislators are moving to toughen the state's requirement that driver's license applicants provide proof of authorized presence in the United States.
In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen is supporting a proposal that would prohibit illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses, but would allow them to obtain "certificates for driving."