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Wash. Attorney General Debate Touches on Immigration, Driver's Licenses

Liz Jones

Tuesday's debate between candidates for Washington Attorney General touched briefly on the issue of immigration. Specifically, they addressed whether the state should require citizenship checks for driver's licenses. It's a question that's getting renewed attention, as election season moves into full swing.


To get a driver's license, most states require proof of citizenship, but not Washington.

Dunn: "That's a very significant problem. We need to change that law."

That's Reagan Dunn. He's a Republican candidate for attorney general.

Washington is one of just two states where undocumented immigrants can get a driver's license. New Mexico is the other. Critics say this makes the state a magnet for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Washington tightened its rules two years ago to verify applicants are, in fact, residents of this state.

Still, Dunn and his Democratic opponent Bob Ferguson say the state's policy is too loose. And they agree on the solution.

Dunn: "The true answer is the Utah model. I encourage you all to look at it."

Ferguson: "I think we have one area of common agreement. I think the Utah model is a good one."

Utah's model is called a Driving Privilege Card. It authorizes non–citizens to drive a vehicle, but the card cannot be used as government–issued ID. So, you couldn't use it to board a plane or set up a bank account.

A similar proposal debuted this year in the Washington Legislature. The measure aimed to create a license for non–citizens that would be clearly stamped "not valid for identification." The bill cleared the Senate Transportation Committee but failed to get a full vote. It'll likely come up again next session.

Toby Guevin is with One America, an immigrant advocacy group in Seattle. He's against the Utah model.

Guevin: "Would you really want to carry around a license with you that clearly stated this was not for identification purposes? With everybody knowing, including law enforcement, that the only people who carry those licenses are folks that don't have social security numbers?"

He says it's like people advertising their undocumented status.

Guevin also sees safety concerns. He thinks many immigrants would end up driving without a license. As a result, they couldn't get auto insurance.

Utah's Department of Motor Vehicles reports about 41,000 people have Driving Privilege Cards. Lawmakers there recently beefed up requirements, adding criminal background checks and fingerprints. Applicants also need proof of residency and a tax ID number.

As to Washington being a magnet state for undocumented immigrants, Reagan Dunn has a theory.

Dunn: "When you have a driver's license problem like we have here — that's why one in 20 individuals in Washington state are here illegally. We have the 7th highest population."

Actually, Dunn's wrong about that. We're not 7th; Washington has the 11th highest population of undocumented immigrants. That's according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. Its most recent report on this population is based on the 2010 census.

But Dunn's mix–up may stem from a Seattle Times story last year about that same Pew Center report. The story incorrectly said Washington ranks 7th among states for growth of unauthorized immigrants in a recent three–year period. A KUOW report caught the error and the Times issued a correction two days later. When it comes to growth of the undocumented population, Washington ranks much lower. It's tied for 16th place.

Pew Center researchers also suggest many factors drive immigration patterns; jobs and the economy tend to top the list. I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.

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