Giving Up Info To Drive A Worthy Risk For Maryland's Undocumented

Maryland has just become one of several states that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses. Such licenses are issued as long as the immigrants show some form of legal ID — such as a passport — and they will have to take road exams. But critics worry about security risks, and costs to the state.

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Maryland has just become one of six states to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses. Under the law that took effect on New Year's Day, the state will now issue a second-tier license to immigrants without full documentation as long as they meet certain requirements. Advocates say it's a great opportunity for those who need to drive to work. But as NPR's Allison Keyes reports, some lawmakers worry it will draw more people to Maryland who are in the country illegally.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: 23-year-old Baltimore resident Missael Garcia is excited.

MISSAEL GARCIA: Well, it's amazing, you know?

KEYES: Garcia is talking about an experience that can be annoying: going to the Motor Vehicle Administration to get a driver's license. He says it was great to be treated just like everyone else, right down to having his eyes tested.

GARCIA: I've been in this country for 12 years and just having the opportunity to go through the whole thing is just - I don't think, like, no one else could appreciate it.

KEYES: Garcia came to the U.S. with his parents, two little brothers and a sister illegally. He hopes to own a restaurant someday. Right now, he's a food runner at a fine dining restaurant and a sports bar, and he's taking business administration classes at Baltimore City Community College. He says he'll be glad to drive because public transportation was making him late for everything.

GARCIA: This is really going to help me a lot because, you know, I go to school. I have to catch two buses and the Metro.

KEYES: But even though he's undocumented, Garcia isn't worried that he'll end up in deportation proceedings if he gets pulled over by the police.

GARCIA: I feel like it will be more risk if I didn't have a license, you know, and get pulled over for a minor thing like a tail light or something.

KEYES: The so-called second-tier license Garcia is getting requires undocumented immigrants to have filed tax returns for two years and get an ID card or valid passport. The licenses are not valid to board an airplane or enter a federal building. It's a lot of information to give the government in a community where people sometimes face deportation proceedings after being pulled over by police.

PABLO BLANK: I think they are not worried about that.

KEYES: Pablo Blank is with the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland, which has helped around 2,000 people through this process.

BLANK: They have the feeling that, little by little, immigration reform is - it will be a reality hopefully in 2014.

KEYES: So Blank says people are eager to start preparing their paperwork to have better documentation, so they'll be ready for that day. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it's focused on removing convicted criminals and public safety threats. But an ICE official tells NPR it doesn't rely on driver's license information to identify priority cases. But the idea that undocumented immigrants could use their driver's license as a step toward staying in the country worries Republican Maryland Delegate Ron George, who's running for governor. He thinks the law will create a deluge of applicants and long lines at the MVA.

DELEGATE RON GEORGE: It's going to put a lot on us because this will be a place you can come to get that first piece of ID. It's very, very important to people.

KEYES: George lobbied against the two-tiered system the state adopted in 2009, which allowed people without legal documentation to get a driver's license. That program was created to comply with the federal REAL ID Act, which mandated that state issued identification cards meet a series of security standards. George thinks the current law is a security risk and will be costly for the state.

GEORGE: The federal government has to do something about the immigration system. But Maryland can't go in the hole trying to be a service to everybody.

KEYES: Back in Baltimore, Missael Garcia already has his learner's permit and is waiting to realize his dream of getting a driver's license like his friends.

GARCIA: Life is just going to be a lot easier for me.

KEYES: Other states issuing second-tier driver's licenses include Illinois, Nevada and California. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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