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New License Law Has Ripple Effect on Illegal Immigrants

Aug 18, 2007

By Brent D. Wistrom, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.

Aug. 19--Every weekday morning, a 42-year-old man in El Dorado prays that he gets to his aviation job in Wichita and back home to his family without a car accident or a traffic stop.

He has a license and auto insurance. He says he has been paying taxes since he got here 12 years ago. And he says he pays into a Social Security system he'll probably never benefit from.

But he's an illegal immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico. Under a new state law, he will not be able to renew his driver's license when it expires in December or keep his auto insurance.

"I need to work," he said. "I'm going to have to drive illegally. If I have an accident, I'll have to run."

"Who's going to pay?" the man asked, throwing his hands up. "Everyone."

Like several other people interviewed, the El Dorado man declined to give his name for fear that he will be found and possibly deported for immigration violations.

Immigration reform groups say new policies like Kansas' will make America more secure for legal residents and make it that much harder for illegal immigrants to sap American resources.

But those here illegally, and even some government officials, say it just makes life more difficult for everyone.

"We're people that work hard," the El Dorado man said. "We're working construction and on highways in 100-degree weather. We're here to work."

A broad effect

About 15,000 current Kansas driver's license holders obtained their license without a Social Security number, said John Holroyd, a public service administrator with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Wichita.

Some may be foreign students, but the majority are believed to be illegal immigrants who renewed licenses obtained before Kansas verified residency.

Kansas Secretary of Revenue Joan Wagnon has said the change could affect 50,000 people through the years as current license holders have to renew and others seek licenses.

That's based on estimates that put the number of illegal immigrants in Kansas at 50,000 to 70,000.

"It's really a significant number if they suddenly can't drive," Wagnon said. "I certainly hope that many of them will have resolved their legal status."

Mrs. Ibarra, who declined to give her first name, said her husband is a mechanic in Wichita and must renew his license in 2011.

She doubts his legal status will be resolved in time.

"We don't know what we're going to do," she said.

Hector, who declined to give his last name, said he has been driving without a license and that he doubts the change in law will have much effect on him or other illegal immigrants who have licenses.

"Every day we have to get to work," he said. "A guy has to work."

He concedes that he's not entitled to a license because he's not here legally but, he said, everyone needs to get groceries, bring their kids to the hospital and get around.

"Everyone has to do these things," he said.

He said he doubts anyone will return to their home country because they can't get a license.

Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group that advocates for tougher immigration laws, disagrees.

He said a license to drive helps people find work illegally and allows them to get access to some social services and to board airplanes.

"It gives you a virtual foot in the door to remaining illegally in the U.S.," he said. "This (new law) is an extremely useful tool in the tool box in terms of enforcement."

A loophole closed

Prior to 2000, Kansas did not require people to show proof of residency, leaving an open door for illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

Former state Sen. Ben Vidricksen, R-Salina, proposed an amendment in 2000 requiring proof of residency after state officials learned people were coming to Kansas from out of state to obtain licenses and then returning to their home states where the licenses gave them the appearance of being legal.

The bill allowed people to sign an affidavit stating that they do not have a Social Security number, allowing thousands to renew licenses obtained before the 2000 law went into effect.

At the time, new applicants had to show some form of legal residency, but some may have used temporary visas that have since expired, Holroyd said.

Having a license also allowed illegal immigrants to get auto insurance, something that many people from Mexico are accustomed to because it is a felony to drive without auto insurance there.

A change in the law that took effect July 1 says applicants for driver's licenses must have a Social Security number that is verified by the federal government or another verifiable government ID, such as a visa or birth certificate.

During a four-week span in late July and early August, 4 to 5 percent of the 10,000 Sedgwick County residents who came to the Department of Motor Vehicles were turned away because they didn't have proper identification, Holroyd said.

Statewide, 4 to 5 percent of the 71,000 people who tried to obtain or renew licenses didn't have the right documents, Holroyd said.

Those figures could include people who simply forgot the necessary documents and illegal immigrants who don't have documents.

Federal mandate looms

Like many other states, Kansas began examining ID laws because of the federal Real ID Act, a controversial move to standardize identification cards nationwide.

It stems from the 9/11 Commission and aims to prevent terrorists from lying about their identities. It requires states to verify the identities of the people they license using Social Security cross-checks.

Kansas has not passed a Real ID law that would put the state into compliance, but it did take the first step by requiring more verification for licenses.

Residents of states that don't comply by May 2008 may not be able to use their licenses to pass federally controlled security points, like airports and federal courthouses.

And some say that's exactly the point.

"The bad guys, the crooks, the frauds, the illegal aliens, these are the ones threatened by Real ID," said Dane, the spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "But the safety of law-abiding Americans is strengthened."

And he doubts many illegal immigrants who do have licenses are carrying valid auto insurance.

"Why would someone who has already demonstrated a propensity to violate laws they find inconvenient spend a thousand or more a year to buy auto insurance?" he asked.

State and federal lawmakers continue to argue about the expenses states will have to pay to comply and the potential for large-scale identity theft.

New Hampshire, South Carolina, Montana, Washington, Oklahoma and Maine have passed bills rejecting the federal mandate.

"One a scale of 1 to 10, we're not at either extreme," Holroyd said. "I think we're kind of in the middle now."

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or [email protected] [mailto:[email protected]].


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