Each day, some of the estimated 9 million illegal immigrants in the United States get in their cars and drive — without a license.
Some state lawmakers are now pushing to let those immigrants get licenses, forcing them to learn the rules of the road and sign up for auto insurance in the process. But others worry that easing license restrictions would allow terrorists like the Sept. 11 hijackers to insinuate themselves into American society.
Already, at least three states — Utah, North Carolina and Tennessee — don't require driver's license applicants to prove they are in the United States legally, and allow them to submit documents other than a Social Security number. (Illegal immigrants cannot get Social Security numbers.)
In Utah, the issue is about jurisdictional powers, as well as safety.
"We have no legal authority to question people, we don't have the responsibility or the authority to question if they're in this country legally or illegally," said Judy Hamaker-Mann, director of the division of drivers' licenses for Utah. "Utah takes the position that we try and get people licensed to make sure they have the skills and the knowledge to drive and make passage safely.
"If all the paperwork appears to be in order — all they need is two forms of positive identification . . . and they appear to have the skills, if they prove they have the competency to drive, we license them." Such proof consists of a coupling of a birth, marriage or christening certificate — but not a Social Security card.
The lack of requiring proof of a Social Security number upsets some motor vehicle officials.
A driver's license "allows you to immerse yourself in society," said Linda Lewis, president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. "There are loopholes in the law that allow those who are here to do harm to work their way into the system."
As in Utah, however, highway safety is of the utmost concern in Illinois, Colorado and Georgia, where some legislators want to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to get licenses. In California, a proposed bill would allow immigrants to get licenses if they've applied for legal status.
"What I'm trying to deal with is the reality of the fact that these individuals are here, they're working here, and they're driving here," said Colorado state Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, who introduced his bill earlier this month.
Like other state bills, his would allow illegal immigrants to get licenses by allowing them to submit federal taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers. Such tax numbers are available to illegal immigrants.
Not all of the opposition to such measures resulted from the attacks — some arguments had been voiced before Sept. 11.
"We're talking about rewarding people who are here illegally and should not be able to obtain a driver's license, or any other privilege of an American citizen," said U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. Lucrecia Mejia, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Mexico in 1992, is among those hoping the measure will become law.
Five days a week, Mejia drives 40 minutes each way to her job at a sporting goods warehouse in a Chicago suburb, even though she doesn't have a license. She says the best job opportunities are in the suburbs, but she must drive to get to them because she lives in the city.
"Sometimes we get in accidents and we don't have licenses or insurance," she said. Allowing undocumented immigrants to have licenses is "a question of safety for everybody."