WASHINGTON — Starting next year, people living in the nation’s capital who don’t have legal permission to reside in the United States will be able to get driver’s licenses.
Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray signed a bill on Monday that would allow the District of Columbia’s Department of Motor Vehicles to issue licenses to people who can’t prove their immigration status. It would take effect May 1 unless Congress intervenes, which isn’t considered likely.
“The Congress and the White House allegedly are debating immigration reform,” Gray said Monday. “We haven’t seen much movement in that regard, and I’m really proud to be part of the effort to bring about immigration reform here in the District of Columbia.”
The bill creates a two-tiered system of licenses in order to comply with federal law. The licenses for immigrants who can’t prove their legal status would be marked as invalid for federal purposes such as boarding airplanes or entering federal buildings.
The D.C. Council initially approved a more sweeping bill that would have allowed those in the country illegally to obtain the same licenses as citizens. But the Gray administration warned that such a law could potentially invalidate all district licenses for federal purposes, forcing hundreds of thousands of citizens to get new, enhanced licenses or produce a passport to board domestic flights.
The council ultimately backed off that proposal and unanimously passed a bill that creates what officials called a “limited-purpose” driver’s license. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the debate about giving the same license to everyone threatened to obscure the main purpose of the bill, which was to ensure that more district residents can drive legally.
“The limited-purpose driver’s license really isn’t that distinguishable” from a standard license, said Mendelson, a Democrat.
Of the 10 states that allow people without legal permission to live in the United States to get driver’s licenses, only New Mexico and Washington state give the same license to everyone. And the licensing requirements in those states were established before the approval of the federal Real ID law, which puts strict limits on the sort of identification that can be used for federal purposes.
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