JUNEAU -- A bill that asks Alaska driver's license clerks to determine how long a non-citizen is allowed to remain in the country passed its only Senate committee last week and appears headed for a floor vote.
House Bill 1 has already passed the House and has gotten strong support from a Homeland Security official in Anchorage.
But a leading Anchorage immigration attorney, Margaret Stock, says it improperly thrusts the state into the business of enforcing federal immigration law and would likely fail if challenged in court.
The bill, introduced before the session began by Rep. Bob Lynn, a Republican from the Anchorage Hillside who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, changes the duration of an Alaska driver's license to match the expiration date of a resident alien's documentation. A noncitizen with documentation allowing for an indefinite stay in the United States can get a one-year license that can be renewed at state expense every year for up to five years.
Citizens and immigrants with permanent resident status will continue to get five-year licenses.
Lynn didn't return a call requesting an explanation of the bill. But in testimony last week before the Senate State Affairs Committee, Lynn said, "Today somebody can walk into the DMV with a visa that expires in two weeks and get a driver's license for five years. I don't think that makes any sense."
Stock, an Anchorage attorney reached in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she was attending an immigration lawyers' conference, said Friday that Lynn's bill "doesn't do what they're trying to do."
"They're trying to enforce U.S. immigration law, which is extremely complicated. It's kind of like the DMV deciding that your driver's license expires when you have haven't paid your taxes properly," Stock said.
A Homeland Security official who testified at the Senate hearing last week countered that residency status wasn't complicated at all.
"All nonimmigrants have a defined period of admission that can easily be determined, and documentation of that period of admission can be obtained from Citizenship and Immigration Services," said Dean Wauson, supervisory special agent with Homeland Security investigations in Anchorage.
But that's not what a University of Alaska Fairbanks official told the committee.
A letter sent to the committee by an associate director in the university's International Programs department, Carol Holz, described the complex process for getting licenses for students and faculty even under the current regime. Because Alaska law requires anyone here for 90 days to get a license, it's not a rare problem, she said.
"While local DMVs have means of verifying immigration statuses through the SAVE System (a federal on-line verification system) and hotlines to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there are many times when the immigration status has not updated correctly," Holz said. That's a common complaint at colleges throughout the country, she added.
"In moving to require applications for driver's licenses on a more frequent basis, this essentially increases the workload of local Social Security offices, my office and most importantly the DMV offices," Holz said.
But the fiscal note on Lynn's bill is zero, meaning it's not supposed to cost the state money.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, suggested foreign students should be scrutinized.
"A lot of times folks think of students: 'very innocuous,'" Giessel said. "But I also think those folks that flew the planes into the Twin Towers, some of them were here on student visas -- is that correct?"
"Foreign students lawfully admitted into the United States do continue to pose a significant threat," agreed Wauson. "We want to make sure that the innocuous ones that you mentioned are able to benefit from our educational system in the United States, but yes, it is also very important, and one of the priorities of the Department of Homeland Security, to keep an eye on foreign students."
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, told the committee that by delving into immigration law, it was getting away from the purpose of a driver's license -- "to allow one to drive safely."
But Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said licenses have become a critical document for establishing identity, whether it's to open a bank account or fly on a commercial airline.
Who was testifying at that Thursday hearing and who was not became a matter of discussion. Wauson introduced himself as a Homeland Security official and began speaking as such, but then, in response to a question about federal policy, said he was actually speaking on his own. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who missed the beginning of the session and Wauson's disclaimer, said later that Wauson's descriptions of policy and activity made it sound like he was speaking officially.
Wauson later said he never sought permission from supervisors to appear at the hearing.
Stock, meanwhile, a national expert on immigration law, has never given testimony on the bill, aside from an email she sent. Mittman urged the committee to talk to her. Issuing a short-term driver's license to match a visitor's documentation might seem like admirable state policy, he said, but Stock can "walk the committee through the incredibly complex types of stays that are involved."
Forrest Wolfe, Lynn's aide, said Stock had been invited three times to hearings between the Senate and House. "I don't see why there's any reason why we should extend more time for her to come in and testify."
But Stock said she received fewer invitations than that, and the ones she got were at the last minute -- not like invitations to congressional testimony, she said, which allow time to plan.
"At one point I was in Washington, D.C., a couple weeks ago," she said. "I was giving a congressional briefing, meeting at the White House, meeting at the Department of Justice, and I got a phone call from somebody who works for Rep. Lynn telling me they were having a hearing right now and could I call in and testify."
Wielechowski said the Legislature had failed to adequately study the measure. At the hearing, he said he was surprised that Senate leaders had only referred the bill to State Affairs. An additional referral to the Judiciary Committee would have explored the legalities of the bill better, he said.
"It appears we're turning our DMV into a de facto immigration office," Wielechowski said. "This does not appear to me that it has anything to do with someone's ability to drive a car, but has everything to do with their legal immigration status, which is clearly something that is in the auspices of the federal government."
He urged the committee to not move the bill but hold another hearing that Stock could attend.
But Wolfe, Lynn's aide, said similar bills were approved by 36 states. "It's never been challenged successfully on any grounds that the ACLU or Ms. Stock would have you believe."
Dyson called for a vote to move the bill. It passed with only Wielechowski voting against. It awaits scheduling by the Rules Committee for a Senate floor vote.
In the interview Friday, Stock said she would have disputed the claim that the laws went well elsewhere.
"They've tried this in other states -- it has created chaos," she said.
And there have been legal challenges, she said. She said she was involved in a lawsuit in New Hampshire in 2006 under circumstances similar to the bill proposed by Lynn. The plaintiff was a nun from Ireland, "and they backed off."
Stock said the bill will have negative impacts on businesses across Alaska -- the oil, mining and health care industries as well as small business owners here on special entrepreneurial visas.
Stock was the attorney who sued Alaska when it began denying Permanent Fund dividends to aliens who were living in the state legally. She won a unanimous decision in the Alaska Supreme Court in 2001.
If Lynn's bill passes, she said, she'll probably be in court again.
"Alaska is a favorable litigation climate for bills like this," she said. "I don't think their passage of it will be the end of the story."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or in Juneau at 907- 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER