Ridge: Link driver's licenses, visas

The Office of Homeland Security is urging states to establish tighter control over foreign visitors who may overstay their visit to the United States by issuing driver's licenses that expire when visitors' visas expire.

The office is drafting model legislation to require that driver's licenses issued to non-U.S. citizens be tied to visas, homeland security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said March 14. The homeland security office plans to send the legislation to states for consideration by legislatures.

The security of driver's licenses became a source of concern after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because most of the terrorists used driver's licenses — obtained legally and illegally — for identification.

Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, has encouraged governors and other state officials to take steps to improve the security and authenticity of driver's licenses.

In a conference call with state officials March 7, Ridge told state emergency management officials that he hopes motor vehicle departments can be electronically linked to databases maintained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. State workers could then check the immigration status of foreign nationals who apply for driver's licenses and issue licenses that would expire when the foreign nationals' visas expire.

Such capability also could help states better track visiting foreigners.

Providing visa information should be relatively easy for INS, said agency spokesman Bill Strassberger. The agency already provides similar information to employers through a computerized employment verification system.

In addition, INS has asked Congress for $380 million to build an entry and exit data system to keep track of foreign visitors. The system may include biometric identification information such as fingerprints or eye scans of visa holders. Such information also could be included on driver's licenses.

Ridge made his pitch about 10 days after he urged governors attending a National Governors Association meeting to draft model legislation setting standards for more secure licensing procedures. By coming up with their own standards, the governors would avoid having standards forced on them by Congress.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is pressing Congress to pass a law requiring states to adopt more uniform standards for driver's licenses and stricter procedures for issuing them. AAMVA officials said they want licenses to include security features that make counterfeiting more difficult, and they want some form of "unique identifier," possibly a biometric identifier such as a fingerprint or an eye scan.

AAMVA also wants more thorough verification of a license applicant's identity before a license is issued. To accomplish that, the association wants Congress to earmark as much as $100 million for a computerized Driver Record Information Verification System that would enable federal and state agencies to more readily share information they have collected on drivers.

Identification verification might involve cross-checking data submitted by license applicants with government databases that contain names, addresses, passport numbers and Social Security numbers, law enforcement records and INS data, AAMVA officials said.

The association also wants state driver's license databases to be interconnected so that licensing officials can check to see if applicants already have licenses from other states.

Privacy advocates oppose high-tech licenses backed by interconnected databases, fearing driver's licenses will come to be used as national identification cards.

Johndroe said the model legislation the Office of Homeland Security is drafting "isn't intended to lead to a national ID card; it is intended to strengthen homeland security."

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