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House advances immigrant licensing bill

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland House of Delegates on Thursday advanced a measure that would allow people with an unlawful immigration status to continue to obtain driver’s licenses.

If passed, the bill would make the existing driver’s license provision for immigrants living in the country without permission permanent and expand the program to include people who have no social security number or whose immigration status currently prevents them for applying for a license.

The Senate has already approved the measure.

In 2009, state legislators revised the Motor Vehicle Administration’s rules to comply with the federal Real ID law, which required that state-issued identification cards meet certain standards, including that they are issued to people lawfully in the country.

Those who don’t have a social security number and cannot demonstrate legal residence in the U.S. — but still had a state driver’s license prior to June 2009 —can renew by getting a special license that clearly states that it isn’t a valid ID for federal purposes. The provision is set to expire July 1, 2015.

Supporters of the bill that would strike down the sunset date say that when immigrants who are living in the country illegally have access to driver’s licenses, it enables them to purchase car insurance and makes the state’s highways safer.

“This legislation is about safety. It makes our streets safer when drivers are licensed and have car insurance,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s.

Opponents argue the licenses reward illegal behavior and could draw more people living in the country illegally to Maryland.

“I think it incentivizes behavior that is illegal,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s. “I think it will be an inducement for people who are coming into this country illegally to come to our state.”

Lawmakers on Thursday rejected several amendments to the bill, including one that would create a fingerprinting provision to go with the special license.

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.

If passed, Maryland would join of a handful of states in the nation that allow immigrants living in the country without legal permission to obtain and renew valid driver’s licenses.

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