Nevada studies driver privilege plan for illegal immigrants

Nevada might get it. Utah’s got it. New Mexico has a version of it but desperately wants to get rid of it. Nebraska, Mississippi, Arizona – they all want nothing to do with it.

It’s so politically popular – or un­popular, depending on the state in which you live – that Las Vegas politicos already are referring to it by an acronym, a sure-fire sign that it promises to become a big issue.

It’s called the DPC – the driver privilege card.

It would allow illegal immigrants to drive legally in Nevada, but it wouldn’t be considered an authentic state ID that could be used, say, to board airplanes or open checking accounts or even prove that you are who you are, proponents say.

It’s simply a privilege that, in theory, is supposed to make the state’s highways and back roads safer. Not only would it raise several million dollars in revenues for the state by charging at least $25 per card, but it also would encourage the undocumented to take driver tests and purchase auto insurance.

And all information given to the state would be confidential. That is, the federal government, more specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would not have access to it. It would be used strictly by local and state police, so that the undocumented, who constantly drive in the shadows or out on the back streets, can finally be accounted for.

The idea has become legislation by Democratic state Sen. Mo Denis of Las Vegas, Nevada’s Senate majority leader and a Cuban-American by heritage.

He plans to introduce his bill at next year’s legislative session. Last week, he had a news conference at the Latin Chamber of Commerce to discuss the measure in detail.

Republicans and tea partyers, now jockeying for the same Latino vote, held carbon-copy news conferences a day later expressing support.

Nevada isn’t the only state that’s beating its own path to solve what many see as a federal immigration problem. Numerous states, including Utah and New Mexico, have created their own laws to deal with such immigration problems.

Already, Denis has talked with Utah legislators who have seen some success with their driver privilege card law: As many as 75 percent of that neighboring state’s applicants buy auto insurance.

WOOING LATINO VOTERS

Whether the driver privilege card will make roads safer in Nevada remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: The concept already has created a bipartisan love fest in the name of either remaining or becoming relevant to the Latino constituency.

When it comes to elections, Latinos have the numbers. They make up 30 percent of the state’s population. The group’s epicenter is the Las Vegas Valley, where the number of un­documented ranges anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000, legions of whom are getting into their vehicles and driving every day – on the sly.

"It’s about doing the right thing. This is a safety issue," said Denis at the Latin Chamber of Commerce last week, a crew of predominantly Latino supporters behind him for photo ops. "This is not a federal immigration issue as people like to say."

Niger Innis, a stalwart black conservative Republican who grew up in Harlem, had a get-together of his own at the Congress of Racial Equality, where he serves as the national spokesman. The organization’s motto is "Making equality a reality for all."

"By allowing undocumented residents to drive, we are teaching them how to become better citizens," Innis said at the small two-hour political brainstorming session.

The only problem is that the un­documented residents aren’t U.S. citizens. Many people believe that granting them driving privilege cards would be interpreted as condoning illegal immigration and might possibly serve as a magnet for more immigrants who are looking to drive legally.

A LESSON FROM UTAH

Utah never saw massive influxes of immigrants coming to its state to obtain the card, but there is one lesson to be learned.

"If I could do anything over, I’d call it something else," said Curt Bramble, a Utah Republican state senator who seven years ago came up with the idea of offering driving privileges for Utah’s undocumented.

"Calling it a ‘driving privilege’ only adds fuel to the opposition. It’s not a privilege. Many of them were already driving anyway. We just wanted to somehow control it and make them accountable for their driving. That was the idea behind my bill."

At 59, Bramble, who was over­whelmingly re-elected to a fourth term in November, also designed a state-based work permit program, referred to as the Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act. It grants two-year work authorization to illegal immigrants who have jobs, provided they prove that they have no outstanding health bills, have committed no crimes and can produce a tax identification number.

The Utah Legislature approved the measure, but it’s still waiting for federal approval.

"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at what’s happening on Main Street, step up and do something about it," Bramble said. "It’s called governing. We’re Americans. And we should be Americans first. It’s about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. … We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ "

Utah appears to be a success story. It has raised in excess of several million dollars each year in revenues from issuing the driving privilege card for $30 apiece to an average of 40,000 people in a little under a decade since the law was passed in summer 2005.

NEW MEXICO’S MISTAKE

Then there’s New Mexico, a textbook example of how not to grant driving rights to undocumented residents, according to Nevada politicians who have extensively studied the issue. Among them is Michael Roberson, a Republican state senator who’s considering a similar bill of his own.

The biggest mistake New Mexico made was issuing actual driver’s licenses while failing to ask for any sort of Social Security or tax identification numbers, they said.

That spawned what Greg Blair, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez, called a "cottage industry of crime."

Criminal enterprises flew into the cities of Albuquerque and the capital of Santa Fe and started carving out a niche for themselves. They created all sorts of fraudulent documents to meet the requirements of obtaining a New Mexico driver’s license, continually duping employees at the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Apartment leases, bank statements, utility bills. A counterfeit market began to flourish as early as 2005, when the law went into effect under Gov. Bill Richardson’s watch.

The headlines on that state’s website read like they’re from an international espionage novel: "Members of Chinese Crime Ring Peddling New Mexico Driver’s Licenses." "East Indians busted for New Mexico’s Driver License Scheme."

In the latter story, five illegal foreign nationals were arrested, including a suspected ringleader who is accused of charging $6,000 per person to obtain a New Mexico driver’s license.

"Governor Martinez has been trying to repeal the law since she entered office," Blair said. "Right now, the proposal on the table is to require proof of legal residency in order to get a driver’s license here."

9/11’S IMPACT ON IMMIGRANTS

There was a time when illegal immigrants could easily get driver’s licenses in any number of the 50 states.

In the 1990s, "it was no big deal," recalled Matt Barreto, a political science professor for the University of Washington in Seattle.

"Then there was this backlash … ," he said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, all states, including Nevada, started to demand proof of legal residency to obtain driver’s licenses. Nevada now requires a Social Security card.

And America’s undocumented immigrants became instant casualties of terrorism and the al-Qaida network

The passage of the Real ID Act in May 2005 made life even more difficult. It set forth a whole new set of stringent standards for obtaining state driver’s licenses and state IDs, although the states reacted differently to the federal requirements.

Some states, such as Nevada, have decided to allow the so-called DREAMers – residents brought into the country when they were children who have been given two-year work permits under the Obama administration’s deferred action – the right to drive legally.

Other states such as Nebraska, Arizona and Mississippi are simply ignoring federal orders and denying that group of applicants.

"What we’re beginning to see is some states are starting to carve out a certain class of people by the way they’re treating them," said Ben Winowgrad, an attorney for the Immigration Policy Center, an immigration rights group in Washington, D.C.

In Arizona, which has taken an aggressive approach to finding and reporting people in the state illegally, Winowgrad said, "I think it’s just being done out of spite because Arizona’s a border state, and it’s been at odds with the federal government on immigration matters in general.

"But I can’t really speak to the reasons why in the other states."

In Nebraska, a terse one-paragraph statement was issued from Gov. Dave Heineman on Aug. 17, about a month after President Barack Obama’s executive order tweaking the immigration law.

"Obama’s deferred action program to issue employment authorization documents to illegal immigrants does not make them legal citizens. The state of Nebraska will continue its practice of not issuing driver’s licenses, welfare benefits or other public benefits to illegal immigrants unless specifically authorized by Nebraska statute."

Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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