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Gregoire supports citizenship checks for driver's licenses

Governor Chris Gregoire says she supports citizenship checks for driver's licenses. Washington is one of the last states in the nation that still issues driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Gregoire says ending that practice is a matter of national security:

"The job of being governor has changed dramatically since I came into office in 2005 and security has become one of the top priorities for every governor in this country."

There are several proposals in the legislature to require the Department of Licensing to confirm an applicant's "legal presence" in the country. Gregoire says if the legislature sends her a bill, she’ll sign it.

The governor's statement comes after a public radio report earlier this week on the issue.

Listen to radio story by Austin Jenkins, aired Monday, Jan. 24th. 

One Legislative Proposal

One of the legislative proposals comes from Representative Mike Armstrong (R-Wenatchee), who would have the Department of Licensing create a two-tier system. Would-be drivers who couldn't prove they're in the country legally would still qualify for a driver's license, but they would get the stamp: "not valid for identification purposes."

Problem solved, right?

Not so says Jorge Baron with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He says put a stamp like that on the driver's license and illegal immigrants will risk driving without one.

"Because I think people would be afraid that would be labeling them as undocumented and therefore raise attention and it's important to realize that we're talking about people who are already in our communities, who have been living many of them for many, many years and the question is do we want them licensed and insured or not," says Baron.

Despite concerns like this, the chairs of Washington's House and Senate Transportation committees – both Democrats – are signaling the legislature will take up this issue this session.

What The State Does Now

Even without a mandate to check citizenship status, Washington's Department of Licensing is using technology to catch would-be scammers. The agency now uses facial recognition software and a social security verification system when screening driver's license applicants.

Applicants who can't provide a valid Social Security number can get a 60-day permit to drive if they provide additional documentation as to their identity and proof they live in Washington. The 60-day window gives Licensing the time to verify that information.

As for DMVs checking citizenship status, one key selling point has been national security. The Coalition for a Secure Driver's License notes that most of the 9-11 hijackers carried valid state driver's licenses.

Oregon changed its license policy in 2008 after it became a magnet for out-of-state driver's license seekers.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.