Secure Licenses Critical to Homeland Security

By Jessica M. Vaughan on October 25, 2005

Testimony Prepared for the Joint Transportation Committee, Massachusetts State House
Boston, Massachusetts
October 25, 2005
Jessica M. Vaughan
Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Immigration Studies

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to testify on House bills 2190, 2191 and 2192, regarding the establishment of AAMVA-recommended standards and procedures to ensure the integrity of driver's licenses and non-driver identification cards issued in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These bills stipulate that licenses and non-driver identification cards issued to temporary foreign visitors will expire at the end of the visitor's authorized duration of stay in the United States.

My name is Jessica Vaughan. I live in Franklin, Massachusetts, and I am a senior policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)1, based in Washington, DC. The Center is a non-partisan, independent research institute devoted to immigration policy research and analysis. We produce research reports and assist lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels with immigration policy matters. I have worked with the Department of Motor Vehicles and legislators and in two other New England states (Vermont and New Hampshire) on reforming driver's licensing laws to enhance national security.

The purpose of the changes proposed in these bills is to ensure that visa overstayers (people who stay illegally in the United States after their temporary visa has expired) are not able to retain the driver's license to help mask their illegal status, while at the same time allowing legitimate long-term temporary visitors, such as foreign students, guestworkers and journalists, to receive licenses.

A secure driver's license issuance process helps protect Americans and visitors from identity theft and terrorist attacks. The key ingredients to a secure license are: a legal presence requirement, a state residency requirement, verification of key identity documents, a biometric identifier, and linking the expiration of the license to a foreign visitor's authorized duration of stay. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) now does all of these things, except for the last item. Adoption of this suite of bills would complete the package.

Why it this important? First of all, visa overstayers represent a fairly large share of the 11-12 million illegal aliens residing in the United States -- roughly 33 percent, according to the Department of Homeland Security2, or possibly more3. If those estimates hold true for Massachusetts, that would mean that roughly 58,000 of the estimated 175,000-200,000 illegal aliens residing here4 are visa overstayers.

This law would prevent visa overstayers from retaining use of a license (or non-driver identification card) issued while in good standing to cover up subsequent illegal presence. For example, under current law, if a foreign student is admitted for a two-year degree or certificate program, the visa is valid for a period just over two-years, but the RMV would issue the student a full-term license. If that student were to drop out of the program (invalidating the student visa) under current law, he could retain the license and use it to obtain illegal employment or pursue other activities, including terrorism. This suite of bills would cut off that opportunity.

In addition, the new law should deter many temporary visitors from staying beyond the time authorized, as it will be clear from the time of license issuance that it may not be used to provide cover for illegal presence.

For an illegal alien, the driver's license is the next best thing to a green card -- it is a widely-accepted document that allows them to function as if they were here legally. Far more than mere permission to drive, the license facilitates employment and enables the bearer to board airplanes and trains, rent cars or trucks, wire money overseas, enter government buildings, and purchase a gun in some states.

The document has been coveted by terrorists. All of the 9/11 hijackers had driver's licenses or non-driver identification cards, and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks (also known as the 9/11 Commission) noted that obtaining the documents was a key step in the ultimate success of the operation.

According to a report issued by my organization, a significant proportion (35 of 94) of terrorists who operated in this country between the early 1990s and 2004 used valid temporary visas to enter the United States. This includes six of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers.5 Many also overstayed their visas, including Mohammed Atta, the apparent ringleader. Under current law, individuals like these would have access to a full-term license. Denying them this privilege in the manner set forth in this legislation would provide an additional layer of defense against future terrorist acts.

For these and other reasons, tying the expiration date of the license to the expiration date of a visitor's permitted stay is considered a fundamental "best practice" by the Association of American Motor Vehicle Administrators. AAMVA's Driver's License/Identification Security Framework released in Feburary, 2004 states that "all jurisdictions that accept an immigration document as a source document shall tie the end of stay date to the expiration date of the driver's license or identification card."

A growing list of states has adopted that standard. After all, no legislator or motor vehicle administrator wants to have to explain after some future attack why the terrorist was carrying a driver's license or identification card from their state.

I'd like to take this opportunity to comment on another bill to be considered by this committee, H.2129, which, by allowing illegal immigrants to obtain a license, would essentially undo all the progress Massachusetts has made in developing a model driving document.

Proponents of this legislation have tried to argue that this change would actually improve security by enabling the government to identify and track illegal immigrants. Said one lawmaker in support: "From a public safety viewpoint, we'll know who these individuals are."6

This claim is a red herring. The reality is that the majority of illegal aliens, or "undocumented immigrants" as many call them, entered the country without a passport, visa or inspection, and thus are unlikely to be able to provide identity documents that are reliable enough for the RMV to accept as the basis for a driver's license or non-driver identification card. In most cases, the RMV cannot verify that a foreign birth certificate, license, voter card, or consular identification card is genuine. Nor can the RMV complete a background check that can establish that the applicant is not a known terrorism suspect or criminal, as the State Department and Department of Homeland Security are able to do before admitting a foreign visitor. The RMV should issue licenses and identification cards only to those visitors who already have been vetted by these agencies through the visa issuance or formal admissions process and, as suggested, restrict the validity of the state-issued document to the period of time authorized by the federal agency. To do more than that is to invite fraud and abuse and possibly compromise national security.

If Massachusetts were to begin allowing illegal immigrants to obtain licenses, under new federal regulations contained in the REAL ID Act, our licenses eventually would become invalid for use with federal agencies. Citizens of the Commonwealth could no longer use them to travel or obtain help in accessing federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, tax issues, or the many other reasons we interact with the federal government. Instead, we would all have to get a U.S. passport, which is much more expensive and difficult process.

Experience shows that Massachusetts also would become a magnet for illegal aliens and emerge as a major hub for identity fraud, as happened in Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, where fake document brokers literally sent busload after busload of illegal aliens to take advantage of lax laws.

While the regulation of immigration is a federal responsibility, it is largely the state governments that pay the price for federal policy or enforcement failures. Thus states have a have a big role to play, and a legitimate interest, in helping the federal government address the problems. Maintaining prudent and sensible driver's licensing standards is one of the most important things a state can do to contribute to the effort to limit illegal immigration and prevent future terrorist attacks.

I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

Respectfully submitted by:
Jessica M. Vaughan
Senior Policy Analyst
Center for Immigration Studies


[2] Estimate of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in teh United States, 1990-2000, Department of Homeland Security, January, 2003.

[3] Overstay Tracking is a Key Component of a Layered Defense, Statement of Nancy R. Kingsbury, GAO report number GAO-04-170T.

[4] "Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures," by Jeffrey S. Passel et al., The Urban Institute, January 12, 2002.

[5] "Immigration and Terrorism," by Janice Kephart, Center for Immigration Studies, September, 2005. See

[6] "Pols pitch driver's license for illegal immigrants," by Ann E. Donlan, Boston Herald, March 23, 2005.