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As Long as We Remember...

October 23, 2003

To License Or Not To License!

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

There will be many pitched battles in the hallowed halls of the General Assembly this winter. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have said that the most intense and divisive fights would be over solving Maryland's fiscal crisis. Raising taxes tied to a slot machine bill looked to me to be the preeminent battle.

In the last few weeks, another issue has emerged that seems able to eclipse the budget challenge for the "most ugly public policy battle" award. The question of whether or not to allow immigrants, both legal and illegal, to obtain a Maryland driver's license is shaping up as a battle royale.

Here's the lay of the land. A group of legislators, led by liberal freshman Del. Anna Sol Gutierrez (D., Montgomery), argue that we encourage the illegal immigration problem principally because Americans don't want to lower ourselves to fill the thousands of service jobs in fields like construction, landscaping, and hospitality.

We create the demands on these industries, but for the most part, we refuse to lower ourselves to do this kind of work. Hence, the employers are forced to employ immigrants without respect to their status in this country.

Another argument offered is that these people are forced to live in squalor in their native country, and their illegal immigration is simply their best effort to improve their circumstance.

Opponents, led principally by conservative freshman Herb McMillen (R., Anne Arundel), argue that extending the privilege of a driver's license to someone who's very presence here is a violation of federal law is irresponsible and dangerous. The example of the 9/11 hijackers, who had obtained driver's licenses from Virginia, is cited as the danger. A license is often the only toll a commercial airline passenger needs to pick up a ticket at the counter that was purchased on the Internet.

Delegate Gutierrez will offer a bill to allow license privileges, and Delegate McMillen will offer a bill to restrict them. Supporters of granting licenses will argue opponents are motivated by racism, and are ignorant of the social dilemma faced by Hispanics in this country. Opponents will counter that in a post-9/11 world, we should be more concerned with our own safety and security than we are about people who are already breaking the law.

I can see it now. The Hispanic community will rally 'round Delegate Gutierrez, and busloads of immigrants will descend on Lawyers Mall to argue for a driver's license. Signs and banners will vilify any legislator who would oppose their request. Opponents will hold patriotic rallies focusing on the thousands who were killed by illegal immigrant terrorists, and the shouting from both sides will essentially cancel each other out.

Based just on the shear numbers, Delegate Gutierrez will probably be able to get her bill out of the House of Delegates, especially if Speaker of the House Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) gets behind it. The Senate will be a different matter, though.

If the bill does make it out of both Chambers, the most interesting aspect of this whole affair will be how the Governor will handle the question. The Governor will face incredible pressure from both sides.

The Republican Party has already had to deal with one serious conflict with the Hispanic community. Jorge Ribas, a self-proclaimed Hispanic Republican activist, led a movement to confront the Governor over the Administration's treatment of his people. The State Republican Party Chairman, John Kane, essentially dismissed Mr. Ribas as a spokesman, and sought another leader for the Hispanic GOP effort.

Conservatives in the House and Senate are becoming increasingly active. Several of them perceive the Governor as too moderate, especially on guns, drugs, and taxes/fees. In the coming session, I expect them to be even more vocal, and this illegal immigrant issue will afford them a platform.

Liberals, led by broken-record Del. Peter Franchot (D, Montgomery), will be looking for ANY opportunity to attack the Governor. The issue of race is too easy and attractive for them to ignore. Count on Delegate Franchot shouting into a microphone (any microphone) that Governor Ehrlich is insensitive to the plight of minorities, and that the Republican Party hates Hispanic people.

Sadly, the real issue will be lost in fog of war. Immigrants to this country, who are legitimately working their way through our naturalization process, should be acknowledged for their effort. They continue a long and important tradition in this great Nation.

Most of us are here because our forebears sacrificed to legally immigrate to America. We should find a way to create some additional incentives for those who pursue a legitimate path to citizenship while creating legitimate obstacles and penalties for criminals who break our laws.

Woodsboro - Walkersville Times
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