A new task for the states

Posted on May 18, 2005

In one of their better moments, Tennessee legislators figured out what was important in the debate over immigrants and driver's licenses. What's important, the General Assembly decided, was to make the state's highways as safe as possible, but leave control of the nation's borders where it belongs: with the federal government. A state law that took effect in 2001 allowed motorists who lack a Social Security number to obtain a driver's license. In 2004, the state unveiled a new "certificate of driving" program for people who pass Tennessee's driving test but can't prove citizenship. The certificates clearly indicate that they can't be used for identification purposes, such as flight boarding ID. Tennessee is now one of two states with two-tiered driver's license/certificate systems, a responsible way to address both homeland security and highway safety issues. It's being viewed nationally as a model for how to handle this complex set of responsibilities. The idea behind the system is to encourage motorists who had been driving without licenses to learn the state's rules of the road, pass driving and written tests, buy auto insurance and add their names to the state's database of licensed drivers. Now Congress wants to muck things up. More than three years after the 9/11 attacks on the nation, an amendment to a vital piece of legislation authorizing funds for American military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq would require states to require every licensed driver to be a legal resident of the United States. The so-called "Real ID" program would be another unfunded federal mandate for the states, it would abdicate a federal responsibility to the states, and it would undo the work of Tennessee and 10 other states that have taken steps to make their roads safer by encouraging more people, no matter what their resident status is, to learn how to drive state highways. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., described the bill in a published report as an attempt to turn state driver's license examiners into CIA agents. Add to that the thought of adding more responsibilities to the work load of anyone who works at a driver's license examining station -- a truly frightening idea to anyone who has been caught at one of the places on a long, busy day. If Congress sees a valid need for a national ID card, that's a separate argument. It should not force state drivers licenses into that duty, especially with no plans to reimburse states for the extra work. And it is a shameful act for sponsors to tack this ill-advised bill onto legislation that funds American troops. If the United States can afford to wage war on two fronts and continue to deliver tax cuts that drive up the federal budget deficit, surely the issue of border control and immigration is not out of the reach of the federal government. Cash-strapped states such as Tennessee can't afford to do the job.