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Md. House Panel Considers Immigrant Licensing Bill

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- A Maryland House panel is considering a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to continue to obtain driver's licenses.

If passed, Maryland would join of a handful of states in the nation that allow immigrants who are unable to prove legal residency to obtain and renew valid driver's licenses.

State law currently allows drivers who are living in the country illegally to obtain a second-tier driver's license, but that practice is set to expire unless the General Assembly passes a bill that repeals a 2015 deadline for illegal immigrants to get rid of their Maryland driver's licenses.

The Maryland House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard testimony for a measure that would strike down the deadline. The Senate has already passed the bill.

Under the legislation, individuals living in the country illegally would have to show proof of identification such as a passport or a birth certificate and provide two years of state income tax filings to prove residency to apply for the license. Applicants would also have to pass a written test and a driving exam before getting behind the wheel.

Supporters of the bill argue that when illegal immigrants have access to driver's licenses, it enables them to purchase car insurance and makes the state's streets and highways safer.

"This is necessary legislation," said the bill's sponsor, Senator Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's. "It makes our streets safer when drivers are licensed and have car insurance."

Opponents of the legislation say that the bill rewards illegal behavior and could turn Maryland into a haven for illegal immigrants.

"I do understand the logic behind trying to document people, so that we don't have unlicensed people out here," Delegate Michael McDermott, R- Worcester. "I just don't know that this is the avenue that we should be traveling."

An estimated 275,000 illegal immigrants live in Maryland, according to the Pew Research Center.

In January, Illinois became the fourth and most populous state to give illegal immigrants permission to drive. New Mexico and Washington state both issue licenses while Utah issues a permit.

But claims of fraud have emerged. An Associated Press investigation last year found that in New Mexico dozens foreign-born individuals tried to take advantage of the licensing system by claiming to live at a smoke shop in Albuquerque to fulfill a residency condition.

Ramirez insisted the bill's tax income requirements would impede a possible onslaught of illegal immigrants looking to obtain driver's licenses in Maryland without the proper credentials.

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration is backing the bill.

"Anybody who operates a vehicle on our roadways should be licensed. Analysis clearly shows that unlicensed drivers are three times more likely to cause a crash or fatality," said Motor Vehicle Administrator John T. Kuo, referencing a California report on unlicensed drivers.

The second-tier licenses would give illegal immigrants all the rights of Maryland drivers, but the cards would say across the top that they're not legal for federal uses, such as entering federal buildings.

"Everyday immigrants that live in Maryland have to drive to take their kids to school, to go to the hospital, to go to the grocery store and without a license parents have to choose between breaking the law or remaining stranded," said Shola Ajayi, advocacy and elections special for CASA de Maryland.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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