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Originally published Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 4:10 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Applicants for driver's licenses should prove they're here legally

Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey argues that the state of Washington should not issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Washington is one of only two states that will routinely issue a driver's license and ID to someone not lawfully present in the United States.

Washington and New Mexico. That's it.

Propose to change this, and the argument is that it's an issue of highway safety. That's what I hear from One America, a Seattle group not usually concerned with road safety, and also from folks over in apple country.

Writes Tracy Warner, editorial page editor of The Wenatchee World:

"They will still go to work, of course. They will still drive. They'll risk it, because they have to live. And when trouble happens, if they're in a wreck or hurt, they won't have insurance and police won't be quite sure who they are or where they live."

This is a far-fetched example. A license does not create a good driver, and anyway the card you carry is about more than driving. It is America's domestic ID card, used for everything from renting a car to buying beer.

However the federal immigration law may be changed — with a path to citizenship ("amnesty"), a migrant program, etc. — there will always be a law. Always there will be some who break it. The question for state and local government is whether to cooperate with the federal law or undermine it.

For years, Washington has accommodated illegal immigrants, and not just with driver's licenses. For example, the federal government won't pay for half of the Medicaid costs of illegal immigrant children, so Washington pays for all of it. For 2011-2013, this is budgeted at $59 million.

Propose to cut such programs, as Gov. Chris Gregoire has (for budgetary reasons) and you're told it's a health issue. Ask about kids in public schools, and it's an education issue. And so on. All such arguments rest on the rock that the people are here, and that nothing can be done about it today because nothing was done yesterday.

Well, some are here. Some aren't, yet. The easier our government makes it for a person to live here as an undocumented immigrant — partly by handing out documents — the more will come.

Slowly there is progress. In 2008, Oregon started verifying Social Security numbers and demanding proof of legal residence for those seeking driver's licenses. There has been no wholesale violation of human rights in Oregon — at least, not that I've heard of. Oregon's officials also say there has been no measurable effect on unlicensed driving or on wait times at state licensing offices.

Now comes state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. She offers Senate Bill 5407, to require every Washington applicant for a driver's license to have a verified Social Security number — and, to get a number, you have to prove legal status.

Some people lose legal status, such as when their visas expire, and checking with Social Security won't catch them. Verifying current legal status — as in Senate Bill 5333 by Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington — is more thorough. But Haugen's reform will catch most of them, and at little cost. Oregon paid only $800,000 to set up a statewide system to verify Social Security numbers.

Most important, Haugen, as chairwoman of the Transportation Committee, has the power to have her bill voted on. The hearing is set for Thursday, 3:30 p.m., in Olympia.

I wish her luck. Let's let New Mexico be the last state not to care whether its license holders are legal residents.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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