Don’t Revamp Michigan Driver’s Licenses

Onerous federal law is headed for repeal; state proposal bans illegal immigrants

REAL ID, the draconian federal law that would make Americans “show their papers” before doing anything involving the federal government, may be on its death bed in Washington. So why is Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land redoubling her efforts to comply with it now?

The reason is that her proposal to comply with the 2005 federal law is simply a cover for her to withhold driver’s licenses from illegal immigrants.

Land last week submitted a package of bills that would require Michigan’s 7.2 million Michigan motorists — and another 800,000 residents with state ID cards — to obtain upgraded licenses that would supposedly put Michigan on the path to compliance with REAL ID. Otherwise, when the law goes into effect in 2009, her office argues, state residents won’t be able to board planes, enter federal buildings, open bank accounts or collect their Social Security checks.

Proposals unneeded

That would be serious. But the rub is that her proposals may be unnecessary.

Vermont Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, this summer obtained 25 bipartisan co-sponsors for his bill to kill the law because, he argues, it is an unwarranted federal intrusion into a state function, raising huge privacy and identity theft issues. The House is working on its own version of the Leahy bill.

Because of such doubts, Congress refused this summer to appropriate a paltry $300 million of the $23 billion that the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency responsible for implementing the law, estimates states will need to implement it.

Even with this appropriation, the law would be a huge unfunded federal mandate. That’s in part why 33 states have approved laws or passed resolutions against REAL ID, some pledging not to comply. Both chambers in the Michigan Legislature have issued resolutions demanding its repeal. The House resolution went so far as to instruct the Legislature to “not appropriate funds nor enact legislation” to implement the law.

Illegal immigrant ban

But Kelly Chesney, Land’s spokeswoman, maintains that the secretary of state still wants to upgrade Michigan driver’s licenses. Why? “Because the Secretary of State’s office does not condone giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” she says.

Michigan is one of only a few states, Chesney says, that cannot inquire into the immigration status of people applying for driver’s licenses because of a 1995 attorney general ruling. Land’s proposal would change that, she said.

Denying licenses to illegals would certainly go down well with the conservative base of Land, a term-limited elected official who might run for governor in 2010. But this is a terrible way to make state policy.

The Department of Homeland Security already has twice missed its deadline to issue final implementing rules. There are already questions about current regulations that it wants states to meet, such as requiring the establishment of the authenticity of documents verifying applicants’ name, Social Security number, home address and citizenship/legal residency status. For example, there is no central database that Department of Motor Vehicle folks in one state could log on to verify the birth certificates issued in another.

Until such question are resolved, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration correctly says the state should hold off on revamping Michigan’s licenses. This would avoid a lot of confusion and cost.

If Land is convinced that handing licenses to visa-less foreigners picking fruit and hanging dry wall for below-minimum wage poses a security threat to Michigan, she should ask Lansing to consider a stand-alone bill to ban that. Using the federal REAL ID law as cover to accomplish that end will hurt Land’s reputation of putting pragmatics ahead of politics, while inflicting unnecessary costs on Michigan residents.