By Becca Heller
A bill granting immigrants in the country illegally with access to a legal driver’s license passed in the House of Delegates Friday after heated debate. The bill has already been approved in the Senate and awaits the governor’s signature.
The legislation extends a program allowing Marylanders to obtain a driver’s license without proving they are in the country legally or have a valid Social Security number – bringing issues of immigration, terrorism and compassion to the debate.
The Maryland Highway Safety Act of 2013, SB 715 and cross-filed as HB 789, was intended to increase the number of qualified and insured drivers on the roads in the state. Both bills passed the House Friday with close votes, 82-55 and 82-56, respectively, but SB 715 has already cleared the Senate so it is on its way to becoming law. With an estimated 275,000 undocumented immigrants currently living in Maryland, the bill would not only generate considerable revenue from license fees, but also presumably make driving in Maryland less risky.
Deeper down, the bill struck at a more fundamental ideological divide, forcing Republicans and Democrats to examine their understanding of immigration and how it fits into today’s America.
Terrorism threat debated
Republican delegates firmly opposed the bill on grounds that it presents a significant threat to national security. Handing out licenses to all immigrants would make it easy for terrorists to acquire the ID required to board a plane, they argued.
“We are about to take a huge risk, a huge gamble in our national security, if we pass this bill,” said Del. Kelly Schulz, R-Frederick County. “The only point we can say with absolute certainty is that the driver’s licenses that those (9/11) terrorists received came from the state of Maryland.”
Del. Norman Conway, D-Wicomico County, brushed Schulz’s grave warning aside, reminding delegates that this new license would be distinguished from others — printed with the words: may not be used for federal purposes.
“Any suggestion that those who vote for this dual licensing system are somehow soft on terrorism continue to ignore the basic facts,” said Conway. “If you want to vote against the bill, do it for some other reason than the concoction that this is somehow going to unleash terrorism on the Eastern shore and in the state of Maryland.”
Pena-Melnyk: The humane thing to do
Taking the discussion in a different direction, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George’s, asked delegates to consider the human aspect of the bill. Pena-Melnyk, originally an immigrant herself, asserted that many immigrants — no matter how they entered the country — have come to view Maryland as home.
“The truth of the matter is they are here. They are living in Maryland,” said Pena-Melnyk. “The truth of the matter is that you’re not going to be able to take them all and send them home. So should you forget about them and make their lives miserable? Who pays for it in the end? The truth of the matter is they need to get to work. Their children need to get to school. This is the humane thing to do.”
But some opponents to the bill argued that providing a license might create a slippery slope, ultimately saddling the state government with substantial health care costs for immigrants.
“If we’re going to give benefits like driver’s licenses, we’re also going to eventually be giving health insurance too, because we heard about the ‘humanity’ that speaks for this bill,” suggested Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell. “And who picks up the tab? We do.”
O’Donnell points to federal failure
O’Donnell pointed a finger at the federal government’s failure to control immigration, suggesting that delegates would be having a very different discussion had American borders been better protected.
“If we had secured those borders and we’d secured them first, now we could have a really truly reasonable discussion about how to deal with these issues — how to be humanly compassionate, how to deal with some of the security issues,” O’Donnell argued. “If we did that you might be amazed at the level of consensus we could build on this. Amazed.”