The four states that still allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses have escaped running afoul of a national identification law because its implementation was delayed Friday.
Hawaii, New Mexico, Washington and Utah are the only states that don't ban illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses. In all, 46 states and territories haven't fulfilled the national ID law's mandates, which require driver's licenses to have security enhancements and be issued to people who can prove they're legally in the United States.
If Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hadn't extended the Dec. 31 deadline for states to comply with the REAL ID law, existing driver's licenses may not have been valid forms of identification to clear airport security in noncompliant states.
"This extension is necessary because implementing REAL ID is simply not practical," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. "Rather than punishing states and American citizens through onerous travel restrictions, the secretary wisely extended Congress' opportunity to do away with the failed REAL ID program."
Akaka is pushing for a separate national ID bill called PASS ID that doesn't cost states as much money and better protects privacy rights, he said. He's hoping Congress will replace REAL ID with PASS ID before the new May 10, 2011, deadline.
Many states oppose REAL ID because the federal government didn't provide much money for its implementation, and its security requirements were considered too burdensome, said Melissa Savage, who tracks REAL ID response for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"If they're not in compliance, citizens would have driver's licenses that technically wouldn't allow them to board airplanes," she said. "The predominant feeling in the states was that REAL ID was likely to go away, so they didn't act."
Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington don't require proof that motorists are in the United States legally before giving them driver's licenses or ID cards. Utah has a two-tiered system that grants illegal immigrants permission to drive with cards that can't be used as ID.
As recently as four years ago, illegal immigrants could obtain driver's licenses in 10 states.
States like Hawaii haven't changed their driver's license laws because they had other priorities during the economic downturn, said House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro. Hawaii will reconsider ID legislation this spring.
"Those issues have taken a back seat," said Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa. "It just kind of fell off the radar screen. It didn't seem like a highly critical issue."
The other states didn't prevent illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses because of concerns that it would be politically unpopular or that they wouldn't be able to get auto insurance.