Immigrant licenses complicate Minnesota's Real ID effort

AP News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2017 5:03 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton pressed lawmakers Wednesday to allow immigrants living in the country illegally to apply for driver's licenses as part of Minnesota's effort to meet new federal ID standards for boarding domestic flights, a move that sparked immediate outcry from Republicans who control the Legislature.

Lawmakers have struggled for years to comply with Real ID, the federal law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that calls for uniform identification cards with more stringent proof of residency to help prevent terrorism and fraud. A looming January deadline for upgraded IDs to board flights has lawmakers racing to approve the upgraded IDs this year.

Dayton's push to offer driver's licenses to all immigrants is a non-starter for GOP leaders, who said adding such a provision to the bill would jeopardize its passage.

Minnesota is one of just five states that haven't passed a law implementing Real ID. Once a law is passed, state officials could secure an extension that would give Minnesota several more years to get the new cards into residents' hands. Passports also satisfy the federal standards for boarding domestic flights and entering federal buildings.

Although Dayton stopped far short of saying he'd veto a bill without that provision, he clearly sees the Real ID debate as his best chance to pass something he and fellow Democrats have long supported.

"It's a public safety measure, in my view," Dayton said Wednesday, saying that unlicensed immigrants are already on the roads without training or insurance.

While the driver's license question is deeply partisan, the larger debate over Real ID cuts across party lines, dividing lawmakers over concerns about data privacy and federal overreach.

That creates an opening for Democrats in the Senate, where Republicans have just a one-seat majority — several GOP senators are vocal critics of the federal law, meaning Democratic votes are necessary for its passage.

Dayton said he met with Senate Democrats Tuesday and urged them to force the inclusion of a driver's license expansion to win their support. The St. Paul Pioneer Press first reported Dayton's overtures to Senate Democrats.

"If you want to give us this opportunity to proceed, you need to hold together and insist on that as part of the Senate bill," Dayton said, recalling his message. "The time of reckoning has arrived."

Top Republicans called Dayton's push a "political game" that threatened to delay Real ID's passage. A bill that passed the Republican-controlled House last week explicitly bans the state from giving licenses to immigrants living in Minnesota illegally — a prohibition that is currently part of state rulemaking.

A similar bill without that ban could come up for a final Senate vote next week. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the driver's license issue should be handled separately.

"Let's get Real ID done. Let's not do anything with the language relating to illegal immigrants," he said.