Flaw Seen in DMV Plan to Check Residency Immigration: First- time license applicants will have to prove they are in the country legally. But no electronic system exists for rapid verification.:[Home Edition]
The Los Angeles Times Dec 15, 1993.

In a move that turns Department of Motor Vehicles clerks into quasi-immigration agents, California will soon require first-time applicants for a driver's license to prove they are legal U.S. residents.

But there is one bureaucratic problem: No electronic system exists to verify the accuracy of an applicant's claim of legal status because the DMV, for now, is not plugged into federal Immigration and Naturalization Service databanks.

As a result, applicants who are unable to prove their legal residency will be issued a temporary permit while attempts are made to verify their claims.

The problem of verification has emerged as the state prepares to implement a law never used in the United States on such a large scale. Only Wyoming, with a population of about 470,000, has a similar legal residency test for first-time driver's license applicants.

The California law, which takes effect March 1, was one of several this year approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Pete Wilson that attempt to deal with the problems and costs of illegal immigration.

The intent of the new law is to deter illegal immigrants from using the implied credibility of a driver's license to help obtain jobs and benefits meant for citizens and other legal residents.

But even here, there is a loophole: Illegal immigrants who now hold a license will be able to renew without questions.

Immigrants' rights activists say the new requirement will not curtail illegal immigration.

Instead, they contend, it will push undocumented residents further underground and result in more untrained, unlicensed and uninsured motorists on the road.

"Whether people have licenses or not, they are going to be driving," contends Lina Avidan of the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Services in San Francisco.

For those born in the United States, the legal status requirement should be fairly simple: merely providing a certified copy of a U.S. birth certificate. For non-natives here legally, compliance will be tougher. For example, birth certificates issued by other countries no longer will be accepted.

Under the legislation, applicants for an original driver's license or personal identification card must prove that their "presence in the United States is authorized under federal law."

To establish such proof, DMV clerks will work from a list of three dozen documents establishing legal residency in this country. If workers suspect that an applicant's papers are fraudulent, the application will be rejected.

People who offer fraudulent proof will be investigated and prosecuted, as will those who assist in acquiring a driver's license for someone in the country illegally, DMV officials say.

The statute exempts license renewals of California's 20 million motorists, including an unknown but perhaps substantial number of illegal immigrants who have been legally licensed over the years.

The Legislature agreed to the exemption after DMV officials warned that applying the legal status requirement to renewals would collapse the department's cost-cutting renewal-by-mail program and send expenses skyrocketing.

The DMV estimates that 743,000 people will apply for their first driver's license during the next year and that 581,000 others will file for an identification card. The estimated additional cost to check immigration status will be about $1.1 million.

Although the state intends to eventually bill the federal government for this expense, California will initially pick up the tab.

The legislation was part of a package sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Federation lobbyist Alan C. Nelson contends that a driver's license "goes a long way toward convincing an employer that you're OK."

"It creates the impression that you are here legally," said Nelson, a former INS commissioner.

The DMV has used Social Security numbers for two years to track down child support deadbeats and traffic fine scofflaws. But the new law for the first time inserts the Department of Motor Vehicles into the immigration screening process.

It also occurs at the same time that department officials say they finally may be gaining the upper hand on shortening the prolonged waits that have characterized DMV customer relations for decades.

They say that the additional workload will not impose a hardship on DMV customers because employees will be trained in swiftly handling immigration-related issues.

But the clerks, already accustomed to recognizing certain federal identification papers for birth date purposes, will have to contend with a list of three dozen documents that establish legal presence in this country.

They will range from such common papers as resident alien and temporary resident cards to esoteric documents, including certified birth certificates from Swain's Island, a tiny U.S. possession in the Pacific, and an "American Indian card," issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to citizen Native Americans living along the Mexican border.

"We tried very hard not to leave somebody out," said Peggy St. George, the department's project manager. "We tried our best to be inclusive."

Verifying an applicant's proof of legal status may be tricky, at least at first, because DMV computers will not be linked to INS databanks.

The new law instructs the department to study the feasibility and costs of someday hooking up with the federal computers. Meanwhile, DMV employees will turn to the telephone or other manual methods of verifying documents with offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service when they suspect fraud.

"I expect that by mid- to late-February the DMV field offices are going to have a good rapport with local INS offices," St. George said.

In cases where an applicant is preliminarily rejected for a license based on legal status, a temporary 60-day driving permit will be issued. It may be extended another 60 days if the applicant provides persuasive evidence that he or she is attempting to secure proper documents.

Nancy Cervantes, workers rights coordinator at the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles, insists that the new law offers only symbolic immigration reform at the threatened expense of highway safety.

"People will not be going through the normal testing who otherwise would be," she said.

EDITORS NOTE: (September 7, 2008) The problem cited in this story that Verification is difficult may have been true when this story was written. But any local, state, or federal agency can now use the government's E-Verify database to verify legal immigration status.