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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Immigrants living in the U.S. illegally could continue to obtain Maryland driver’s licenses under legislation passed Friday by the Maryland House of Delegates.

The bill now awaits Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature. The House of Delegates passed it on an 82-55 vote. The state Senate last month approved the measure 29 to 18.

The legislation would expand an existing system that allows some applicants to obtain a license without proof of lawful immigration status, and would repeal the state’s 2015 deadline for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to get rid of their Maryland driver’s licenses.

In 2009, state legislators revised the Motor Vehicle Administration’s rules to comply with the federal Real ID law. The federal law required that state-issued identification cards meet certain standards, including that they are issued to people lawfully in the country.

Those who lack a Social Security number and cannot demonstrate legal residence in the U.S. — but had a state driver’s license prior to June 2009 when the state began taking immigration status into consideration — can renew by getting a special license that clearly states that it isn’t a valid ID for federal purposes. The provision is set to expire July 1, 2015.

About 95,000 people without lawful immigration status were grandfathered into the existing licensing system. Under the bill, more than 100,000 people whose immigration status currently prevents them from applying would qualify for a second-tier Maryland driver’s license.

Under the legislation, the second-tier licenses to be held by immigrants living in the country illegally would have the same colors as a standard driver’s license, but would say across the top that they’re not legal for federal uses, such as entering federal buildings or boarding a plane.

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration supports the measure, insisting that unlicensed drivers are much more likely to cause a crash or fatality.

“We are pleased that the bill passed,” said Motor Vehicle Administrator John T. Kuo.

Lawmakers backing the measure argued that when immigrants living in the country without permission have access to driver’s licenses, it enables them to purchase car insurance and makes the state’s streets and highways safer.

Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George’s Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, lauded the General Assembly’s approval as a victory for the state.

“We are moving Maryland forward. This is a game changer as to how we treat residents in Maryland. We bring them from out of the shadows, rather than treat them like criminals,” said Ramirez, a longtime advocate for Maryland’s immigrant community. “If you’re a Maryland resident and you’re paying taxes, this is a way for you to get a driver’s license. We want people to be trained and insured.”

Under the legislation, immigrants would have to show some form of identification, such as a birth certificate or passport, to apply for the second-tier license. Applicants would also have to a pass written and road exams and would be required to provide two years of state income tax filings to prove long-term residency.

Opponents argued that the licenses reward illegal behavior could draw more people living in the country illegally to Maryland.

“Maryland is going to be a haven state,” House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s. “We will be the only state east of the continental divide that will do this.”

In January, Illinois became the fourth and most populous state to give immigrants who cannot demonstrate legal residence in the U.S. permission to drive. New Mexico and Washington state issue licenses. Utah issues a permit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland praised the General Assembly for passing the legislation, saying that immigrants living in the country without permission will no longer have to fear arrest or harassment while trying to meet their basic daily needs, like driving their kids to school or going to work.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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