States find mixed results in making licenses harder to get

Saturday, June 15, 2002

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- State officials around the country adopted a similar line of reasoning after Sept. 11: If most of the terrorists got on planes by flashing driver's licenses, maybe those licenses were too easy to get.

At least 30 states proposed changes, ranging from stricter penalties for creating fake IDs to making the licenses of noncitizens expire when their legal stay ends.

Ten months later, though, few of the plans have become law. At least seven states have revised their policies in some form, with New Jersey, Florida and Virginia -- where terrorists obtained licenses -- leading the way.

But many other proposals died because they were seen as hostile to immigrants.

"The further we get from Sept. 11, the more complacent we tend to get," said Minnesota's public safety commissioner, Charlie Weaver, who blamed the recent death of a state plan in part on opposition from immigrant groups.

When an anti-terrorism plan was first proposed in Minnesota in November, changing the driver's license system was considered the bedrock reform upon which others would be built.

Licenses for noncitizens would expire at the same time as their visas, and their licenses were to be marked with a colored stripe to make them easier for police to spot.

It was the last provision that offended civil liberties groups and immigrants. They argued that the color code could invite harassment and discrimination. The Democratic-controlled Senate opposed the Republican-led House on the issue, and the bill died in the legislature's closing hours.

On emergency basis

Such concerns did not stop other states.

Kentucky now requires most non-citizens to go to one of 12 Transportation Cabinet offices statewide to obtain or renew licenses.

The measure, implemented on an emergency basis in November and slated to become law next month, is being challenged by the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, which wants the U.S. government to investigate whether the practice illegally discriminates against immigrants by making some travel long distances when citizens can go to their local county clerk's office.

"The premise is nonsense," said the Rev. Pat Delahanty, a policy analyst with the conference. "Timothy McVeigh stands as proof opposite that noncitizens are the people we need to fear the most on terrorism."

Florida and Louisiana have enacted laws that make driver's licenses expire with immigration permits, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Connecticut did the same thing through a rule change.

Virginia and Colorado now require stricter proof of residency to obtain a license. And New Jersey passed a bill, on hold for now, to convert to licenses with digitized photographs and signatures to make them harder to forge.

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