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.
Zimmer 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.
• Washington granted 3,200 licenses to people from outside the U.S. through June, exceeding the pace of 5,992 for all of 2009.
Hernandez said he and his family moved to Washington because he and his wife were spooked by the Arizona law that requires officers to check a person’s immigration status when enforcing other laws. A federal judge has put most of the law on hold, saying it may be unconstitutional.
Hernandez said he knows other illegal immigrants who considered New Mexico because of the ease of getting a license without documents. But he and others thought Washington would be safer.
“I know that it’s not OK for people who come here to cross the border, but there’s people that come here that want to contribute … that want to follow the rules,” said Hernandez, 31, who has a 2-year-old daughter.
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.
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.”
In New Mexico, Motor Vehicle Division Director Michael Sandoval cautioned that it’s impossible to identify any specific cause-and-effect linking the Arizona law to illegal immigrants relocating in New Mexico because of the way the licenses are issued.
The state does not require clerks to document where immigrants moved from. And clerks cannot ask if someone is in the country illegally.
As a result, there’s no way to distinguish between a license issued to a Swiss chemist employed with a visa at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a license assigned to a Mexican laborer in the U.S. illegally.
Washington state immigrant advocate David Ayala said it’s better for drivers to have licenses, especially from a public safety standpoint.
“The people who are driving in the streets need to be tested that they have the knowledge and ability to be on the highway,” said Ayala, organizing director of a group called OneAmerica.
People with licenses, he added, “have a more normal life. They can cash a check. They can rent an apartment. They can have insurance for the car.”