Appropriations Amendment Déjà-Vu: Allowing Illegal Aliens Access to Driver's Licenses All Over Again

By Janice Kephart on February 16, 2011

Yesterday, Rep. David Price (D-NC), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, offered a one sentence amendment to homeland security federal funding that would cut off states' ability to check foreign nationals' legal status ("None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for the implementation of the REAL ID Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-13)."). The Price amendment would put a stop-order on the current working relationship between USCIS and states implementing secure driver's license rules that require legal-status checks through the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program. The REAL ID law requires that only U.S. citizens or those lawfully present in the United States be issued a driver's license or ID that in turn can be used for "official purposes," such as boarding an airplane. Sec. 202 (c)(2)(B) of Public Law 109-13 specifically requires:

(B) Evidence of lawful status.--A State shall require, before issuing a driver's license or identification card to a person, valid documentary evidence that the person--
(i) is a citizen or national of the United States;
(ii) is an alien lawfully admitted for permanent or temporary residence in the United States;
(iii) has conditional permanent resident status in the United States;
(iv) has an approved application for asylum in the United States or has entered into the United States in refugee status;
(v) has a valid, unexpired nonimmigrant visa or nonimmigrant visa status for entry into the United States;
(vi) has a pending application for asylum in the United States;
(vii) has a pending or approved application for temporary protected status in the United States;
(viii) has approved deferred action status; or
(ix) has a pending application for adjustment of status to that of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States or conditional permanent resident status in the United States.

The REAL ID regulations go further, explicitly requiring use of SAVE in Section 37.13 (b)(1):

(1) States shall verify any document described in § 37.11(c) or (g) and issued by DHS (including, but not limited to, the I–94 form described in § 37.11(c)(vi)) through the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) system or alternate methods approved by DHS, except that if two DHS-issued documents are presented, a SAVE verification of one document that confirms lawful status does not need to be repeated for the second document. In the event of a non-match, the DMV must not issue a REAL ID driver's license or identification card to an applicant, and must refer the individual to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for resolution.

All but two states (New Mexico and Washington) currently require applicants for a REAL ID-compliant driver's license or state-issued ID to prove lawful presence in the United States prior to issuance. Most states comply with REAL ID by using SAVE, including North Carolina, Rep. Price's home state. In fact, according to SAVE statistics, from October 1, 2008 to August 16, 2010, there were 22,216,009 queries of SAVE by state motor vehicle departments. Broken down, the numbers show a steady increase in the use of SAVE by states. In FY '09, states queried SAVE an average of 987,378 times per month. Interestingly, states' request for further USCIS document verification of identity information presented by foreign nationals has surged, perhaps suggesting that states are implementing stronger anti-fraud measures. From October 2008 to September 2009, states submitted requests for supplemental USCIS analysis 79,598 times, an average of 6,633 per month. From October 2009 to August 16, 2010, there were 126,116 such queries, an average of 12,011 per month, a near doubling of states' requests for USCIS support.

Strangely, Rep. Price wants all this to end, despite the manifold positives that legal-status checks have brought to states by reducing illegal alien fraud across the board. Equally odd, North Carolina's experience with illegal alien abuse of its Division of Motor Vehicles was traumatic enough for the state to begin a series of driver's license processing changes in 2005, which began with an internal audit of Social Security number abuse at its DMV. The results showed 27,000 license and ID applicants used false SSNs, about half of whom were listed as deceased in SSA records.

SAVE allows end-users to verify the immigration status of an individual applying for an entitlement or government benefit such as a driver's license. Thus, in much the same way SSN checks reduce SSN fraud, SAVE checks reduce illegal alien attempts at faking a legal status. Under Rep. Price's amendment, USCIS would not be allowed to negotiate the necessary Memorandums of Agreement to enroll the few remaining state DMVs in the SAVE program. In fact, the Price amendment would basically require USCIS to refrain from any SAVE support to DMVs, such as that required when state DMVs request specific identity document verifications of driver's license applicants. Instead, Price would reverse the work of states to comply with REAL ID and to reduce the fraud that plagued states like North Carolina before they started taking illegal alien status checks seriously.

Perhaps someone needs to ask Rep. Price why he wants to kick DMVs in their anti-fraud teeth.

For more on the current status of REAL ID implementation, please see my January 2011 Backgrounder, "REAL ID Implementation: Less Expensive, Doable, and Helpful in Reducing Fraud".