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Immigrants face problems getting drivers' licenses in Missouri

April 24, 2003
By: Inigo Apalategui
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 438, HB 634

JEFFERSON CITY - The problems immigrants face getting drivers' licenses in Missouri became one of the central issues of the second annual Hispanic Day in Missouri's statehouse earlier this month.

More than 70 Hispanic leaders from Missouri participated in the event, introduced by Gov. Bob Holden.

"Your population has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and we need to hear your voices," Holden told the group.

Tony Ramirez, a St. Louis attorney who helped organize the event, took the governor at his word, raising one of the more frequent complaints foreigners raise involving state government: the issue of drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants.

"We are working on that," Holden replied. "And it is our goal to get it resolved to Tony's satisfaction during this session, hopefully."

Holden referred to a bill that immigrant rights groups have been pushing for more than two years. It would allow immigrants to apply for a driver's license using a state-issued identification number rather than a Social Security number. The proposal would allow thousands of undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses.

But later, his press secretary, Mary Still, said that Holden does not actually support the bill in its current form - only as a starting point for discussion on the problem.

In fact, with just a few weeks left in the legislative session, the bill has little chance of passage this year. The measure has been stalled in the House Transportation Committee.

The situation is discouraging for advocates like Maria L. Knapp, organizer of Manos Unidas in St. Louis.

"We already tried it last year and it arrived at the Senate," she said. "But in that chamber some voices said that the immigrants would use it to vote without having the right for it, and it didn't pass."

Advocates say that allowing undocumented immigrants to get a license would make Missouri's roads safer, because they would be required to pass driving tests and also would have access to insurance.

But opponents say that allowing them to have legal ID would validate their illegal presence in the country and would present a threat to the nation's security.

Rep. Wayne Henke, D-Troy, has proposed a bill to make things harder for immigrants who are in the United States ilegally. His proposal would allow immigrants to keep their licenses only for the time the INS authorizes them to stay in the country, so their licenses would expire at the same time as their visas.

The bill has been approved by the House Transportation Committee, but has not been reported to the full House for debate -- effectively killing the issue for this year.

The drivers' license question came up again in a session with the director of the state's Revenue Department, Carol Fischer.

Participants at Hispanic Day reported that even immigrants who had legal drivers' licenses from other states were being denied a Missouri license.

Fischer said she would look into it and try to get that problem solved.

Steve Ahlers, legislative coordinator of the department's Motor Vehicle and Drivers Licensing Division, said that denial of a driving license even if the applicant had a license from another state might be proper.

"We don't make any difference between Americans and immigrants," Ahlers said. He said that even with a license from another state, a local license can require a Social Security Number if the local office clerk has questions.

But Ramirez said that just provides an opportunity for discrimination.

Ramirez said the issue is reflective of a bigger problem in Missouri.

"It shows that everyone who doesn't look like the norm and doesn't speak perfect English is going to have problems," he said.