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Illegal immigrants flock to states where it's easy to get driver's licenses

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Saturday, August 14, 2010 - 10:58 am

BURIEN, Wash. — Carlos Hernandez packed up his family and left Arizona after the state passed its sweeping immigration crackdown. The illegal immigrant's new home outside Seattle offered something Arizona could not: a driver's license.

Three states — Washington, New Mexico and Utah — allow illegal immigrants to get licenses because their laws do not require proof of citizenship or legal residency. An Associated Press analysis found that those states have seen a surge in immigrants seeking IDs in recent months, a trend experts attribute to crackdowns on illegal immigration in Arizona and elsewhere.

“It's difficult being undocumented and not having an identification,” said Hernandez, of Puebla, Mexico. “You can use the Mexican ID, but people look down on it.” An American driver's license is also a requirement for many jobs.

The immigration debate has thrown a spotlight on the license programs, which supporters say make financial sense because unlicensed drivers typically do not carry car insurance. Opponents insist the laws attract illegal immigrants and criminals.

“Washington state and New Mexico have been magnet states for the fraudulent document brokers, human traffickers and alien smugglers for years,” said Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C.

State officials in New Mexico dispute that claim.

He said there is mounting evidence that the spike in license applications is a result of pressure on immigrants in states such as Arizona and Oklahoma, where police have been authorized to help enforce federal immigration laws.

Republican lawmakers in New Mexico and Washington state have pushed to tighten the laws in recent years, only to be thwarted by Democrats. The issue is less heated in Utah, where illegal immigrant licenses carry only driving privileges. People cannot use the IDs to board a plane, get a job or buy alcohol, for example.

Candidates in New Mexico's governor's race have made the licenses a campaign theme, with the Republican saying she would revoke IDs granted to illegal and legal immigrants since the state enacted the law in 2003. The Democratic candidate opposes illegal immigrant licenses but prefers a softer approach.

The AP analysis of data in the three states revealed some striking numbers: The rate of licenses issued to immigrants during the 10 weeks that followed approval of the Arizona law reflected a 60 percent increase over the annual average for last year.

By comparison, the rate of licenses issued to non-immigrants during the same period increased only modestly.

Among the other findings:

• New Mexico issued 10,257 licenses to immigrants through the first six months of 2010, compared with 13,481 for all of 2009. The pace has intensified since April, when neighboring Arizona passed its immigration law. The figures include both illegal immigrants and legal residents from outside the U.S.

• New Mexico issued about 417 licenses a week to immigrants from the day after Arizona passed its law through July 1. That is a big jump from the 323 per week it was issuing from Jan. 1 to the day before the law passed.

• Utah handed out 41,000 illegal immigrant licenses for 2010 through June 7, compared with 43,429 for all of 2008. Utah did not provide data for 2009.

• Washington granted 3,200 licenses to people from outside the U.S. through June, exceeding the pace of 5,992 for all of 2009.

Recent fraud cases in New Mexico and Washington show some people are trying to exploit the rules.

An Illinois man is accused of driving two Polish immigrants from Chicago to Albuquerque last month in a scheme to charge them $1,000 each for help getting driver's licenses, according to a criminal complaint.

Jaroslaw Kowalczyk of Des Plaines, Ill., allegedly ran an advertisement in a Polish newspaper boasting, “Social security not necessary. 100 percent guarantee.”

In Washington, the FBI was tipped that people from across the country were coming to the state because of its license law. Three people, including one current and one former state Licensing Department employee, were arrested in June in a case dealing with the sale of identification documents to illegal immigrants.

“We don't think we're asking for much,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, sponsor of a bill last year in Washington seeking to require proof of citizenship to get a license. “We have to have a handle of who's in our state.”