After simmering for several years, the issue of whether undocumented workers should be allowed to obtain driver's licenses is boiling up again.
Under pressure from growing numbers of Latinos - now the largest minority in America - states such as Maryland, Texas, and California are considering laws that would allow immigrants to apply for a license by presenting a passport and a birth certificate - no green card or worker's visa necessary.
Here in California, home to the nation's largest Hispanic population, advocates say the rationale of such a measure is to ensure that illegal workers drive safely.
But others say that granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants gives them tacit residence status. Licenses, after all, are a de facto passport for opening a bank account or obtaining other benefits. As such, the dispute is part of a larger debate over what privileges, if any, illegals should be allowed and whether such moves undermine homeland security by making it easier for terrorists to infiltrate the US.
"The issue is back again," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. "Politicians with large Hispanic constituencies are pushing hard to get documentation for illegal immigrants. Others are being forced to weigh the consequences of ignoring or angering this growing voting bloc."
That's certainly true of Indiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina, all of which have growing Hispanic populations and are starting to eye the possibility of granting licenses to undocumented workers. Even so, a backlash is evident elsewhere. Georgia's Senate last week reversed a bill that allowed undocumented workers to apply for licenses.
And in Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner (D) signed a law last month expressly forbidding such practices after public debate focused on how the Sept. 11 terrorists obtained driver's licenses from Florida, Virginia, and New Jersey and used them to move about the country.
In California, home to 1 in 4 of the nation's estimated 8.5 million undocumented aliens, advocates are pushing a bill that would enable about 2 million illegals to obtain a driver's license. Illegal workers are the backbone of many key industries from agriculture and maintenance services to construction, and, as such, should be safe drivers, according to proponents of such laws. Encouraging illegals to get a license would urge them to learn the laws of the road, operate cars more safely, and obtain insurance.
Opponents say states have no business giving illegal immigrants documents that are often used, rightly and wrongly, to validate other activities from getting legal jobs to establishing residency to obtaining healthcare.
Although sponsors of the legislation to open up driver's licenses to immigrants are holding up traffic safety as their primary motivation, they are now emphasizing national security as well.
"In this climate when communities are dealing with a constant terror threat, we feel it is better to know who these people are by getting their pictures, addresses, and other information," says David Galaviz, counsel to state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D), of Los Angeles who is sponsoring SB 60 here.
Similar legislation was vetoed last year by Gov. Gray Davis in part, say observers, because he signed another bill favorable to Hispanics and was thus less vulnerable to Hispanic voter backlash. The California governor has hinted he will veto the bill again unless it contains more specific antiterrorism language.
But observers say the legislation may have a chance now.
Four years ago, Latino voters helped governror Davis into office with 70 percent of their votes and helped push a Democratic takeover of the state Assembly. The legislative shift left, alongside Davis's narrow reelection is seen as reason for more optimism by proponents. The new version passed by 7-3 vote of a Democrat-dominated Senate Transportation Committee and is getting support from organized labor.
Immigration rights activists in California say the bill is more appealing to them because harsher identification requirements - such as a letter on the car identifying occupants as immigrants - have been dropped.
"Illegals are more and more the engine that drives the economy," says Art Pulaski, director of the California State Federation of Labor. "If they are hamstrung by having to get to work by bus in a state where very little public transportation exists, they are dramatically affecting the productivity of their companies."
Not all Hispanics support such measures. The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont found that one in three are against driver's licenses for illegals. Many agree with the claim that licenses put states in the position of assisting illegals to live in the US.
"What states ought to be doing is enforcing the laws on driver's licenses, emissions, safety, insurance, and all the rest," says Mr. Mehlman. "You can always rationalize not enforcing the law, but at some point, if you don't it becomes meaningless."