Maryland is poised to become the only state on the East Coast to issue driver's licenses to immigrants here illegally under a bill passed by state lawmakers Friday.
The legislation, which Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to sign, would revive a two-tier licensing system that was set to expire in 2015. It would grant new licenses to more than 100,000 people, legislative analysts said.
"We've changed the conversation on how we deal with residents in Maryland, and that includes everyone, including immigrants," said Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who introduced the bill. "We're going to take a practical approach and not drive people underground and not treat them like criminals." (which they are)
Motorists who pass a driving test and can prove two years' residency — even if they cannot prove lawful status in the country — would be able to apply for the second-tier license. Those licenses would have all the driving privileges of other Maryland licenses but could not be used as federal identification.
The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration backs the proposal because licensed drivers cause fewer accidents and can buy insurance, officials said.
O'Malley's spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor will sign the bill. The House passed the bill Friday and the Senate endorsed it last month.
Only four other states — Utah, Illinois, Washington and New Mexico — have laws granting driving privileges to immigrants in the country illegally. Maryland Republicans predicted the state would become a "haven," attracting illegal immigrants because it is the only state in the region to grant licenses.
"They're not here to contribute, as far as I'm concerned," Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said during the floor debate. "If we encourage people to come here illegally, we encourage them to take jobs from Americans."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and Hispanic rights group have praised the plan for providing equal treatment to immigrants and described a driver's license as fundamental to living in a community.
Maryland first created the second-class licenses in 2009, when the federal Real ID law mandated that state-issued identification cards meet several security standards, including verification that applicants were in the country legally.
Before then, immigration status was not considered when Maryland issued driver's license. About 95,000 already-licensed drivers who could not prove legal status were given the second-class licenses in 2009, which are marked "Not for Federal Purposes" and cannot be used to board a plane or enter a federal building.
Those licenses expire in 2015 and no more were granted. Once the bill passed Friday is signed into law, driver's licenses could be issued beginning next year.