By Lisa Rein and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; B04
Gov. Martin O'Malley backed a House of Delegates plan yesterday to allow thousands of undocumented immigrants in Maryland to keep their driver's licenses but shut the door to new applicants who cannot prove they are in the country legally.
The governor said he would sign either a bill passed by the House and favored by immigrant rights advocates or stricter legislation approved by the state Senate that would require all applicants to show their legal status. But O'Malley (D) called the House plan a "more practical and more reasonable approach" to resolving an issue that has simmered in Annapolis for five years as officials have struggled with how to comply with the federal Real ID security law.
"At the end of the day, the most important thing is to come into compliance" with the law, O'Malley said after an appearance in Rockville.
The conflicting House and Senate bills underscore one of the legislative session's most contentious issues and will probably need to be resolved by a conference committee before the General Assembly adjourns in two weeks.
The governor's position on driving privileges for illegal immigrants apparently has softened since late February, when he said he supported driver's license legislation to require proof of legal residency. He cited widespread fraud by undocumented drivers he said were flocking from out of state to Maryland, the only state east of the Colorado Rockies that does not check the immigration status of license applicants.
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said both bills would stop license seekers from getting fraudulent documents through the Motor Vehicle Administration by putting a stop to the out-of-country appointment system, which would end either June 1 under the House bill or Oct. 1 under the Senate one. But the House plan sets up a dual system for those already licensed by offering them a card that on renewal they could use to drive but not to board planes or enter federal buildings.
"Clearly the governor understands the drastic implications of taking away licenses for 150,000 people living in Maryland," said Kim Propeack of CASA of Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group, estimating the number of licenses the state has issued under the out-of-country system.
MVA officials have said any dual system would be costly and efforts at fraud would continue. Administrator John Kuo declined comment on the governor's position yesterday, referring questions to the O'Malley's legislative staff.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who supports a legal presence law for all drivers, called the governor's position "caring and thoughtful" and said he is concerned about "immigrant-bashing rhetoric." But Miller said Maryland cannot continue to "reward the criminal conduct" of those who have and could continue to obtain fraudulent licenses if illegal immigrants continued to have driving privileges.
Republicans called on the governor to support the Senate bill.