November 26, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: Lawmakers need to get strict with license rules


The following editorial appeared in the Nov. 19 edition of the Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.). It does not necessarily reflect the view of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board.

Washington’s policies on obtaining driver’s licenses have been absurdly lenient for many years. Our state is one of just three (plus New Mexico and Utah) that do not require applicants for driver’s licenses to prove they are legal residents of the United States.

Lawmakers continue to drag their feet because their constituents don’t seem too fired up over the matter. This year, for the fifth straight year, a measure that would deny driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants did not make it to the ballot. Too few signatures to qualify. Until the lawmakers, and the people who elect them, muster the will to bring our state alongside 47 others in processing driver’s license applications, we must count smaller regulatory triumphs as they pop up.

And one popped up this month. Starting Nov. 8, the state Department of Licensing is requiring proof of a valid Washington residential address if an applicant doesn’t provide a verified Social Security number. Although this policy falls far short of what’s needed, it’s a small step in the right direction. As Brad Benfield, department spokesman, told The Spokesman-Review, “What we can’t do is make people prove they are in our country legally.” But at least they can make people prove they are residents of the state.

That might prompt a bit of curiosity at first. If someone does not live here, why would he or she want a driver’s license? It’s simple: Because they can take that driver’s license back to where they live and use that license as a form of identification. Valid ID is required to apply for government services, cash a check, apply for a job or board an airplane.

The policy that was announced this month is not new. It actually began three years ago, but was dropped after one year because it became inconvenient to applicants. The required documents (utility bills and auto insurance cards) must be scrutinized and approved by department staff, not office counter workers. This takes time, and a temporary license is issued. Now, though, the policy is back in effect, although the documents are required only from applicants who do not have Social Security numbers. What caused the resumption of the policy were recent developments that any forward-thinking person could have predicted. Large increases have been noticed in applications from other states, particularly North Carolina and Michigan, where licensing officials have tightened enforcement of requirements for driver’s licenses.

The Spokesman-Review reported that about two-thirds of 752 applicants from North Carolina in September had no Social Security numbers. And DOL officials logically concluded that many of those driver’s licenses were being taken back to North Carolina … permanently.

The recent resumption of the proof-of-residency rule does nothing to keep illegal immigrants who reside in the state from obtaining driver’s licenses.

Ultimately, Washingtonians will either have to coalesce around the ballot-initiative process or in some other way exert enough pressure to compel legislators to do the right thing.

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