AUGUSTA, Maine - As a national debate over immigration rages, Maine's policy of granting driver's licenses to nonresidents and people with no proof of legal residency is coming under closer scrutiny.
The secretary of state's office says active driver's licenses are currently issued to 2,521 people who have no Social Security numbers, meaning they could be in the United States illegally.
Those are among the 5,771 names in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles registry of people who lack proof that they are in the country legally or who for some other reason are listed without Social Security numbers.
The numbers are expected to come under review before the Transportation Committee as it receives a report today that examines state laws governing eligibility and documentation requirements for applicants for driver's licenses and nondriver identification cards.
The study was what remained of legislation last session that originally sought to restrict Maine driver's licenses and ID cards to residents of the state, with exceptions for nonresident students and active military members and their families.
The bill surfaced amid concerns that Maine's policy does nothing to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country. Maine is one of eight states that do not require drivers to prove legal status in order to obtain a license. The others are Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
After Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York defended a proposed policy of that kind in his state, the issue exploded on the national scene and became the subject of fierce debate in the presidential campaign.
It has also been thrust into a congressional campaign in Maine by 1st District Republican contestant Dean Scontras, who believes that most Mainers don't realize the state issues driver's licenses to people who are in the country illegally.
"We give out licenses to people who don't live in Maine, who never have and never will," Scontras said in a statement. "We have no idea if they are international fugitives or Hezbollah operatives, because staffers at Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices are not allowed to ask."
Also in Maine, US Attorney Paula Silsby said yesterday she believes Maine's system needs change because it creates vulnerabilities in public safety and homeland security issues.
"My office has prosecuted two cases in which people from outside of Maine, who had no ties to Maine, were transporting illegal aliens to the state for the sole purpose of getting drivers licenses," Silsby said. She said her office learned that one of the transporters had an ad in a foreign-language newspaper offering to facilitate Maine license procurement.
Silsby stressed that a state license has taken on more importance than just an endorsement to drive; it opens doors to government services and is needed as a valid form of identification in airports and other facilities.
The secretary of state's office rejected any notion that Maine's policy is too friendly to illegals and those who might engage in terrorism. Spokesman Don Cookson said it actually creates a system to keep track of people who might otherwise be overlooked.
Cookson said changing Maine's policy would not stop the flow of illegal immigrants into Maine or the country, saying, "If they are here illegally, they are here illegally."
Applicants for Maine licenses must give their Social Security numbers or provide written documentation from the Social Security Administration on why they are ineligible for a number, Cookson said. The problem is, the federal agency is reluctant to provide that documentation, he said.
For people in that category, the space asking for Social Security numbers is filled in with all 9s. There are 5,771 names in the motor vehicle registry showing 999-99-9999, but they are not all illegal aliens, Cookson said. Examples include motorists who are stopped by police in Maine and do not give their Social Security numbers to the state. Another example is foreign students, Cookson said.
"There seems to be a rush to enter into the notion that if they entered all 9s they are an illegal alien," Cookson said. "That is an incorrect assumption."
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap wants lawmakers to carefully consider any changes they may make in the state's policy.
Dunlap told lawmakers Real ID was impractical and could cost state taxpayers $185 million over its first five years.