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January 30, 2004
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ARCHIVE: Immigrants and the DMV

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This month Nevada joined a national trend of trying to make drivers licenses a more secure form of identification. As of January 1st no longer can you move here and exchange your old California or Texas license for a Nevada one. About half of states have similar laws saying other states are just too lax in verifying identity before issuing a license. The new laws have not only alienated other states, but immigrants as well.

You can use it to deposit or cash a check . . . to buy liquor in a store . . . and to get on a plane. The Driver's License has evolved says Jason King of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators - a membership organization of all the DMV's:

We have dumped something very important into DMV's lap and that is we have made them the issuers of our ID of choice.

Since DMV's like the one in Henderson have been thrust into the identification business, the Association is recommending tighter proof of identity requirements in the driver's license application process. DMVs should ask for an original birth certificate, or another state's drivers license for instance. But some states just want a picture and proof an applicant lives in the state. Meanwhile, other states like Nevada want social security numbers and documents verified by the U.S. government. The inconsistency between states has raised fears that a fraudulent license may be issued in one state and then exchanged for a license in a state with more stringent requirements. Jason King sees the problem that's evolved:

I think that our drivers license framework is rife for fraud and our driver's license chain can only be as strong as its weakest link.

Trying to address this issue, this month the DMV in Nevada banned the exchange of licenses from 21 states including California, Texas, Washington, Utah and Oregon saying these states' proof of identity requirements are too lax. The strategy's not unique. About half of states have banned licenses for exchange from other states. While it's not unique this strategy is inconsistent. Florida, which has banned licenses from 20 states, will accept California's but Nevada won't. Minnesota won't accept any state's license. Florida won't accept Minnesota's, but Nevada will. DMV Administrator Ginny Lewis:

It is confusing and it is going to be hard to keep up with this list as states change.

The process is not only inconsistent between states, but easily breached. Nevada is accepting licenses from Missouri even though Missouri will accept expired licenses from any state including the ones Nevada has banned. Oregon is on the list of states from which Nevada won't accept licenses, but Oregon enacted stricter requirements just this month. So now the Nevada DMV will have to re-evaluate Oregon ID requirements. David House of the Oregon DMV says states like Nevada, Florida and Minnesota shouldn't be banning Oregon or any other state's license because all states are going through the same effort to make the drivers license more secure these days. They are taking extra precautions to ensure a driver's identity and that everyone on the road is licensed. He says there is another motive behind states that ban the licenses of other states:

Do we link that to immigration status or citizenship? Do we make every person who is here prove that they are a citizen of the country? And in Oregon the debate has ended up saying no we shouldn't link those two things.

It is an immigration issue in Nevada. This month Nevada put New Mexico on the list of states with lax requirements because it accepts the Metricular Consulate ID as identification - a foreign identification card. And in fact, on a survey Nevada sent to evaluate each state's ID requirements, 2/3rds of the questions were related to immigration. Nevada also asked each state if it has a "legal presence law" - meaning before a license can be issued in a state, an applicant must prove they are legally in the U.S. The result of Nevada not accepting licenses from some 21 states is that 150 people who apply daily to exchange licenses in Nevada must file new applications and provide documents, documents only available to people who are in the U-S legally. Part-time Senator and full-time waitress Maggie Carlton says Nevada legislators used identity issues to single out and turn away undocumented workers:

I am sure that in the back of their minds that this is something that they could use in order to disallow immigrants from other states from moving here to exchange one license for another license.

There are 13 million undocumented immigrants in the U-S. How the ones in Nevada will be affected by the new law, wasn't discussed in the legislature before it was passed according to Miguel Barientos, President of the Mexican American Political Association in Las Vegas:

And well all of a sudden you are no longer allowed to have a car in Nevada so how are you are going to get to work is your problem but we still expect you to pay everything else, you know, where is the fairness in that?

Assembly speaker Richard Perkins who wrote the law admits it will be an inconvenience for undocumented workers, but that's the price of enhancing the security of the Drivers license:

This particular bill had nothing to do with the immigration issues that we face, it only had to do with verifying who someone was. I have always been a strong supporter of the immigrants in our valley and the contributions that they make to us. It was not even part of the debate or the discussion on this bill.

But, he says immigration is an issue now that President Bush has suggested undocumented workers in the U-S should be allowed to work here legally. He says if they can work, they should be allowed to drive too:

A year ago I'd have bet $100 that this administration wasn't going to open our borders like they have suggested they want to. That will change the dynamic a little bit. It will change the focus a little bit, you will have a lot of folks that will stay that might not have stayed and that will put a little bit more of a burden on the Department of Motor Vehicles and some of the other agencies. I don't know, I don't know.

Even if immigrants are eventually allowed to work in the U-S legally, DMV Administrator, Ginny Lewis says their identities will remain an issue in Nevada:

If they are here legally or illegally, that is not what we are asking, what we are asking is, can you prove who you are?

The catch 22 is that Nevada, not the federal government, can choose what documents are acceptable to prove identity before issuing a driver's license. The DMV in Nevada says it will only accept "verifiable" documents such as a social security card or birth certificate. But even those documents are easily forged with fictitious identities according to the General Accounting Office. It tested DMVs three months ago and found that DMV's had no way of verifying that the applicants in front of them are the rightful holder of a social security card or birth certificate.

There is an easy way to solve 90 percent of drivers license identity fraud cases without getting into immigration issues according to American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators: Update the Commercial Driver's License Information System, or CDLIS, so it can keep interstate records of passenger vehicles. The association has requested $36 million in federal funding for states to do that in the Transportation Equity Act, expected to be heard in February. It'll take years to put that system in place if it's approved. Whether or not it goes into place Nevada legislator Maggie Carlton plans to ask the DMV next year which applicants were denied licenses under Nevada's law and why:

And then we can re-evaluate it and see if they accomplished what they set out to do or if they just set up another bureaucratic layer that a working person has to go through in order to do their jobs.

The DMV admits that providing additional documents is an added inconvenience for more than 54 thousand people who try to exchange unacceptable licenses from the 21 states including California, Oregon and Texas.

For undocumented immigrants in Nevada it's not just an inconvenience. This year they'll get daily reminders that they are denied driving privileges. New Nevada license plates encouraging citizenship are to be printed and will appear on passing cars.

Ky Plaskon, News 88.9, KNPR.

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