As the national immigration debate stalls in Congress, Maryland and the District of Columbia are joining a handful of states that are issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. The specially-marked licenses can be used to drive but not as a federal ID. We explore what the new laws mean for our region and for the national battle over immigration.


  • Mary Cheh Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 3); Chair, Committee on Transportation and the Environment
  • Victor Ramirez Member, Maryland Senate (D-Prince George's)
  • Jon Feere Legal Policy Analyst, Center for Immigration Studies
  • Brad Botwin Director, Help Save

Featured Clip

Maryland and D.C. are moving ahead on proposals to issue a special type of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. We find out what proof residents will need to show in order to apply for an ID, and how opponents to the measure are reacting.


  • 12:33:10

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIEven as the debate over immigration stalls in congress, a growing number of states are addressing one piece of the debate on their own. They're passing laws that allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. In May Maryland joined a handful of other states in passing such a law. And on Tuesday the D.C. council did the same. Some immigrant advocates say the license should look just like everyone else's. But in both Maryland and D.C. they'll indicate that the bearer is not a legal U.S. resident so the license can be used to drive but not as an ID to enter a federal building.

  • 12:33:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOpponents of the measures worry that granting driver's licenses will attract more undocumented immigrants who may compete with existing residents for jobs and for housing. And they say states and the district should not be making it easier for people who are in the U.S. illegally to live and work here. Joining me in studio to have this conversation is Mary Cheh. She is a D.C. council member representing Ward 3. She's also a professor of law at George Washington University. Mary Cheh, good to see you.

  • 12:34:12

    MS. MARY CHEHGood to see you.

  • 12:34:13

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Victor Ramirez. He's a Maryland State Senator and sponsor of Maryland's new driver's license law. Victor Ramirez, welcome. Good to see you.

  • 12:34:21

    SENATOR VICTOR RAMIREZGood to see you, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 12:34:23

    NNAMDIJon Feere is legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies. He joins us in studio. Jon Feere, welcome.

  • 12:34:30

    MR. JON FEEREThank you. Good afternoon.

  • 12:34:31

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Brad Botwin. He is director of Brad Botwin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:34:40

    MR. BRAD BOTWINThank you.

  • 12:34:41

    NNAMDIMary Cheh, the D.C. council voted this week to issue driver's licenses to undocumented residents. What was the motivation to do this? Who qualifies to get a license?

  • 12:34:50

    CHEHThere was a twin motivation. The first motivation had to do with the plight of people who are here in an undocumented status, some of whom came as children. And not being able to drive has really had a significant effect on their personal lives. They can't drive their children to doctors. They can 't drive them to school. They can't use them for whatever everyday needs people use their cars for.

  • 12:35:15

    CHEHBut the second reason has to do with everyone else. We know that there are many undocumented immigrants in the District of Columbia. We have about -- estimates vary -- but about 25,000. And some significant portion of those are people who are drive-age eligible. And what happens is they drive anyway. And since they drive anyway, what we want to do is we want to ensure safety. We want folks to be able to take the test, pass the test. We want them to have a license so that if they have a car they can get insurance. In other words, we want them to be safe drivers since they're going to be driving anyway. So it was those two reasons that prompted us.

  • 12:35:54

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Should a driver's license indicate whether or not someone is a legal U.S. resident, 800-433-8850? Or send email to

  • 12:36:11

    CHEHKojo, I'm sorry.

  • 12:36:11

    NNAMDIPlease go ahead,

  • 12:36:12

    CHEHIf I can interrupt because you keep framing it, should a license indicate that someone is here as an undocumented person, and that's not what it does. Although that will be the bulk of the people who will get the license that is marked, it's marked because there's a federal law that says if you are going to grant licenses to people who are undocumented, you have to put on the face of that license a statement, not valid for federal purposes. And while the bulk of the people who would get that license will be undocumented, it's not the entirety of the group that would get such a license.

  • 12:36:46

    NNAMDIWhy not?

  • 12:36:47

    CHEHBecause we provide, for example -- for whatever reason, there are some people who do not have, do not want to seek or do not want to provide a social security number. That's among the group of people who would have to get this second license.

  • 12:37:01

    NNAMDIAnd it means, in a way, that the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security is forcing local jurisdictions, in a way, to get involved in immigration.

  • 12:37:10

    CHEHRight. In a way -- right. In a way, I mean, it's taking a different tact. It's saying, hey if you want to have access to federal buildings, if you want to use your license to get on airplanes then you -- and you give undocumented residents a license, none of those licenses -- none of them will be able to be used for those purposes. And so it's the fear that our residents, all of them -- if we give undocumented residents a license, that if we don't mark them, all of our residents won't be able to use their license to have access to federal buildings or to fly on airplanes.

  • 12:37:46

    NNAMDISenator Ramirez, Maryland issued driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants for many years then halted the program in 2009 after the Federal Real I.D. Act passed in response to 9/11. Now Maryland lawmakers have voted to resume issuing licenses in January. Explain how the Maryland program will work and who's eligible.

  • 12:38:06

    RAMIREZWell, I think we're -- thank you very much, Kojo. You're right. We did have a program where if you couldn't product certain documents such as a Social Security number -- and kind of going on what the Councilwoman has said -- we do have U.S. citizens who to this day have IDs or driver's licenses that say not acceptable for federal purposes. And especially some of our older citizens who can't find their birth certificate, who can't find their Social Security.

  • 12:38:38

    RAMIREZBecause in compliant with Real ID back in 2009, these are some of the requirements that the state of Maryland had to do in order to be Real ID compliant. So it's not just about undocumented immigrants. It's about everyone else who may not have the proper documents that the Real ID is asking for. I think the push was public safety, public safety, public safety. And from our perspective statistics have shown people who are licensed, people who are trained, who have passed an exam make our streets safer and are more likely to have car insurance as well.

  • 12:39:14

    RAMIREZAnd so accidents happen, things happen, people drive for necessary purposes either to take their children to the hospital, to be involved in -- to go to work, emergency situations. And at the end of the day I think that we as a body, as the majority of us in the Maryland General Assembly took a step back and said, look, we have something that was working. Why not implement it again? And we actually went a little...

  • 12:39:45

    NNAMDIYou mean something that was working from a public safety standpoint?

  • 12:39:46

    RAMIREZ...public safety standpoint. And we had law enforcement who supported it. And for -- because a basic traffic stop that would take 15 minutes now is taking hours to try to identify who that person was. And we even went further. We even asked that if you have this type of ID or a driver's license with this restriction you can't purchase a firearm. I mean this is something that law enforcement, state's attorney's office came and testified in favor of, local government officials came and testified in favor of. And so at the end of the day we had a lot of input from a lot of different people.

  • 12:40:30

    NNAMDIJon Feere, you've said these driver's license programs amount to encouraging illegal immigration. How so?

  • 12:40:36

    FEEREYes. Movement on this driver's license issue really isn't about public safety. It's really about trying to blur the lines between those who are here legally and those who are here illegally. And if the city governments were concerned about illegal immigrants driving recklessly or driving without insurance, we don't really need new laws. They simply need to demand that the federal government do its job, enforce our immigration laws and remove the individuals from the country. I mean I'm very troubled by this argument that, well, these people are going to drive anyway, so if they're going to break the law let's go ahead and accommodate them.

  • 12:41:09

    FEERENo. When you break the law you're held accountable. And if I’m driving out in D.C. without a license, without insurance, without proper registration, I would hope that the cops would hold me accountable for breaking those laws. And so what this is, it's a bigger picture issue. And jurisdictions have a choice to make. They can either make their area more welcoming to illegal immigration, or they can try and discourage illegal immigration. And the D.C. council and Maryland are moving towards making it more easy to live here illegally.

  • 12:41:39

    FEEREAnd don't take my word for it, I mean, there was an advocate for the bill at the meeting on Tuesday night, from the National Day Labor organizing network. And he said, "The bill passed today is a significant step toward reducing the threat of deportation." And that's really what this is about.

  • 12:41:56

    NNAMDIBrad Botwin, you've said that cities and states should not make life easier for people who are in the country illegally. How do you think a driver's license would do that?

  • 12:42:05

    BOTWINWell, it's one of the key benefits, kind of the keys to the kingdom. And I just, you know, sitting here and listening, I totally agree with Jon. But when I hear elected officials like Mary and Victor saying that they're doing this for safety, you know, where were you 9/11? All the terrorists on the airplanes had driver's licenses, which they obtained legally. And both jurisdictions actually do not allow the federal government to do their jobs. What Jon's saying is, you know, let the feds do their jobs. D.C. government is very much opposed to having ICE come in and remove people.

  • 12:42:46

    BOTWINBut really, why would you want to spend additional money and manpower to have a second tier of licenses so you can help illegal immigrants go to work? That's not allowed either. They're not supposed to be working. And, you know, I just read an article. Wal-Mart is, you know, thankfully, the District is allowing Wal-Mart to set up. I think 11,000 black Americans applied for about 1,000 positions at Wal-Mart that are being built in the area. Why are we helping illegals get to work when we have so many black Americans that are looking for jobs?

  • 12:43:25

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Steve, in Bethesda, comment on that. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:31

    STEVEThanks, Kojo. First point is, I guess, it answers the question what jobs are being sought after if 11,000 people are applying for 1,000 jobs. Clearly there's people out there looking for work, but more to my point, an organization like Wal-Mart and any legitimate business organization has to complete an I9 form to hire an employee legally. And a driver's license that says that it is not a federally accepted form of documentation does not complete that form. You need to have a social security card and legitimate driver's license or a passport or something along those lines in order to gain employment legally.

  • 12:44:26

    STEVESo this document is not going to fill that and is not going to allow people to be hired. The other part of it is -- and I had not brought this up with the screener -- but the idea that we should enforce the laws and that if somebody's driving illegally is kind of disingenuous. I run a business and for example I have employees, sometimes we require people to show up at 8:30 in the morning. Somebody keeps showing up at 8:45 in the morning because they can't get there because they're dropping their kids off at school or something, and ultimately I'll say, listen, if you can't be here until 8:45, I'll just schedule you at 8:45. There's a real world flexibility that needs to be exercised.

  • 12:45:18


  • 12:45:18

    STEVEAnd I think that offering these driver's licenses is an example of that. Thanks a lot.

  • 12:45:22

    NNAMDIAllow me to get some responses. First from you, Jon Feere. The caller argues that, look, that's Wal-Mart's job to ensure that the people it's hiring are legal residents of the country. Why are you putting that on the jurisdictions?

  • 12:45:35

    FEEREWell, the jurisdictions have a role to play in this, as well. In addition to the driver's license trend, the other trend amongst the states, which is actually a bigger trend, is the mandate of E-Verify, which is a federal program that any business can use if they want to determine whether or not the person who they're hiring is giving them an actual social security number and their real name and real ID. And right now about 16 different states require its use in some form or another. And when I hear from the councilmember that there are about 25,000 illegal immigrants in D.C., many of whom are holding jobs and considering the unemployment that's in D.C., D.C. is like number 44 out of 51 jurisdictions in terms of unemployment.

  • 12:46:14

    STEVEIt would seem to me that if your concern was the residents that you would be mandating E-Verify and things of that nature, turning off sanctuary policies, but instead we're moving in the opposite direction.

  • 12:46:24

    NNAMDIMary Cheh?

  • 12:46:25

    CHEHYou know, I disagree about the emphasis that you're placing here. The national government has to deal with immigration, provide a way to deal with the millions of people already in this country, a path to citizenship, but in the local community my job is to protect my local community. And what we have done is we've taken a posture saying that people are here and they are a valuable part of the community and that we want to make sure that they behave safely, if they are on the roads. And on top of everything else, in terms of how we treat them relative to the federal government, we want to make sure that the people in our community feel free to contact the police, feel free to testify if they see something, feel free to engage with the community at large without fear that at any moment they're going to be swept up.

  • 12:47:20

    CHEHSo we have a different perspective than you have. You want to make life horrible and have us be police for the federal government. We're not willing to do that. We want to treat people who are here and are behaving legally and are part of our community in a way that we think is humane and sensible.

  • 12:47:39

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Do you think immigrants in the country illegally should be able to get a driver's license? 800-433-8850. You can also send us an email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:49:55

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. We're talking with Brad Botwin. He is director of Mary Cheh is a D.C. councilmember representing Ward 3 and a professor of law at George Washington University. Jon Feere is a legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies. And Victor Ramirez is a Maryland state senator and sponsor of Maryland's new driver's license law. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What identification do undocumented residents need to show to obtain a driver's license and how will that affect who's able to obtain one, Mary Cheh, and then Victor Ramirez?

  • 12:50:35

    CHEHWell, Maryland has a slightly different approach to this in terms of its specification in the legislation, as I understand it. But we have a more generic approach. We need to have proof of identity, age, district residency of more than six months. And because there is variance among states about exactly what documents will be required, we have left it to our Department of Motor Vehicles to make the prescription of exactly what is needed. Our law doesn't go into affect -- it has to be signed by the mayor, but it doesn't go into effect in any event until May 1st because that’s when we'll have the resources to handle it. So between now, or when the law's finally passed, and May 1st, we expect the DMV to come forward with further requirements, particular requirements, to meet these general requirements.

  • 12:51:25

    NNAMDIVictor Ramirez, same question.

  • 12:51:26

    RAMIREZThank you very much. It's true. Our legislation, actually it's focused for Maryland residents. You have to have paid Maryland income tax -- filed Maryland income taxes for the preceding two years. And the comptroller's office actually gives you a certification letter to make sure that that is the case. And they email MVA before you can even make an appointment to apply for this type of driver's license. You know, and in addition you must obtain proof of you identity. That has to be a valid current passport, two residency documents, a residential lease, a utility bill, a bank statement. And then you have to pass the Maryland drivers exam like anyone else.

  • 12:52:21

    NNAMDIJon Feere, we got this email from Ben, in Silver Spring. "The 9/11 hijackers were here legally. And if they were to be here now they could get licenses and board planes even under the most restrictive laws under consideration. Calling them illegal is making a totally inflammatory argument to make the opposition seem pro terrorist." What do you say?

  • 12:52:43

    FEEREWell, the fact is the REAL ID requirements for a recommendation by a 9/11 commission. And their concern was that these 19 hijackers had somewhere around 30 driver's licenses from multiple states between them. And obviously that's a problem when you have multiple IDs with multiple names from multiple jurisdictions. And so the goal here was to try and prevent that scenario from happening again. The 9/11 terrorists, yes, they did come legally. Most of them overstayed the terms of their Visas or didn't adhere to the terms of their Visas and therefore rendered themselves illegal immigrants.

  • 12:53:19

    FEEREBut the fact is, as someone who knows someone who was killed on 9/11, I find it very troubling that these jurisdictions are bending over backwards to try and find ways around REAL ID and trying to find ways to narrow the scope of the intent of that law. I mean I've heard discussions about how the council is considering putting the requirements in the smallest possible font on the driver's licenses, indicating that these are not for federal purposes. Or trying to issue all D.C. residents two driver's licenses, was a suggestion on Tuesday night. I just don't understand why the goal is to help illegal immigrants get to jobs illegally, for example, especially at a time when D.C. residents, tens of thousands of whom are desperately looking for work.

  • 12:54:04

    NNAMDII think Paula, in Alexandria, Va., may have a response to the point you just made. And then I will have Brad Botwin respond. But, Paula, you first.

  • 12:54:12

    PAULAYes. Hi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a little troubled by listening to the rhetoric that I hear. I mean in this short program immigrants have been compared to terrorists. I don't understand why the word deportation is thrown around as if that is a great solution. A lot of times people that are deported, they are the parents of American children. And their rights are not considered at all. What is going to happen to those children whose parents are deported? If they stay in this country they go into foster care and they grow up thinking that the country they were born into has this attitude with immigrants, where their lives are not considered. They not considered normal human beings that deserve rights.

  • 12:54:59

    PAULAThe deportation process is horrific.

  • 12:55:01

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Brad Botwin respond. Brad Botwin, how do you respond to the point that Paula made?

  • 12:55:07

    BOTWINYes. Just a quick point on that. So, you know, when we have Americans who are arrested for crimes and put in jail, we have similar situations where families are broken up. That's, you know, you take the risk, you get caught. So for illegal immigrant families, nothing is stopping them from all regrouping back in Nicaragua or El Salvador or wherever. But the real issues -- and I'm also very troubled hearing elected officials here…

  • 12:55:34

    NNAMDIOkay. We have about a minute and a half left. So go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:36

    BOTWINOkay. Real fast. The dereliction of duty by our elected officials, Maryland law is now pushing, actually, the illegal immigrants to get these individual taxpayer identification numbers. These ITIN numbers, which are actually for foreign nationals who have offshore holdings here in the United States. So they are trying to water down the differences between citizens and non-citizens. And, frankly, I don’t feel safer having more illegal immigrants on the road by passing legislation like this. You are causing more illegals to move into Maryland. We're paying already about two billion…

  • 12:56:13

    NNAMDIWell, the argument that is generally made against that is that would you prefer people who do not have licenses, but choose to drive anyway on the roads? Because they're here, they're going to drive. You can't stop them. But because we're running out of time -- can authorities…

  • 12:56:25

    BOTWINYou know, actually…

  • 12:56:27

    FEEREIf you can't stop them, you enforce the law.

  • 12:56:28

    NNAMDICan authorities use the limited driver's license as grounds to pursue immigration violations, either following a traffic stop or by looking through motor vehicle records?

  • 12:56:37

    CHEHWell, that's a question, but I think we need to address what's been said here.

  • 12:56:40

    NNAMDIYou have exactly one minute and 30 seconds.

  • 12:56:42

    RAMIREZKojo, I think we need to get away from this illegal immigration. We're trying to pass practical laws that are, for example, in Maryland, you've living in Maryland, you're paying taxes in Maryland, you have family, you have kids that are U.S. citizens, this is real life. And to call people anything else other than -- describe them as terrorists -- now to go back to 9/11, I think that was a tragedy, but we're dealing now with 2013, Kojo. And I think that the reality is we have immigrants living here.

  • 12:57:15

    CHEHRight. And those terrorists were here legally.

  • 12:57:18


  • 12:57:18

    CHEHAnd in fact, if they have the second license that we're going to authorize, they could not actually board a plane. So…

  • 12:57:22

    NNAMDIBut what's the…

  • 12:57:23

    CHEH…I think this rhetoric and this inflammatory statements are so off the mark.

  • 12:57:31

    BOTWINWhat's inflammatory about pointing out that the bill we're talking about is a product of the REAL ID Act, which was a result of 9/11?

  • 12:57:37

    CHEHIt may be a product…

  • 12:57:38

    BOTWINThat's a 9/11 commission recommendation.

  • 12:57:38

    CHEH…of that Act, but let's look at what the danger is that we're talking about. And if they are marked they cannot get on an airplane.

  • 12:57:46

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Mary Cheh is a D.C. councilmember representing Ward 3, Jon Feere is legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, Brad Botwin is director of, and Victor Ramirez is a Maryland state senator and sponsor of Maryland's new driver's license law. As you can tell, this debate is far from over. But thank you all for listening. I’m Kojo Nnamdi.

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