Senate passes bill restricting licenses for foreigners

Richard Mauer

The Senate passed a driver's license bill Friday targeting non-citizens who have temporary visas by reducing the period that their Alaska licenses are valid to no more than a year.

The measure, House Bill 1, passed 13-4. It passed the House last year, 28-7, and now goes to Gov. Sean Parnell for his signature.

Urban Democrats who spoke against the bill said it would require the Division of Motor Vehicles to learn the complexities of federal immigration law and put an extra burden on the poor, foreign students and refugees.

Supporters said it was a minor change to the law that would prevent foreigners who overstayed their visas from using an Alaska driver's license as identification.

"This isn't going to change western civilization," said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, described the bill as "well-meaning legislation" with serious consequences for the state budget and some of its residents, including Hmong refugees who live in his East Anchorage district.

"The problem with the Hmong refugees -- who fought for our country, were persecuted and fled their native land -- is that many of them have no documents of their place of origin," Wielechowski said. "I've had numerous meetings with DMV over the years to help and DMV has been very accommodating. If we pass this law, that all changes. This will become infinitely more difficult for them to get their driver's licenses."

The bill is one of several in the Legislature targeting non-citizens, and the first to pass. The most recent, awaiting a decision in the House Rules Committee on whether to send it to the House floor, would prevent courts from taking the likelihood of deportation into consideration when sentencing a non-citizen. A voter photo ID bill, promoted as a tool to prevent fraudulent voting, including by non-citizens, is also in the House Rules Committee but faces broad opposition from legislators who are concerned it would suppress voting in the Bush, where photo IDs are difficult to come by, and among the elderly, poor and students.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, led floor action Friday on the driver's license bill, describing it as the product of the "only other distinguished member of the geezer caucus," of which Dyson, at age 75, is one.

Both the driver's license bill and the voter ID bill were introduced into the Legislature by Rep. Bob Lynn, the oldest member of the Legislature at 81 and a Republican who represents the Anchorage Hillside. Lynn, a native of largely Hispanic East Los Angeles, says he came to Alaska in 1995.

When he spoke for his bill in a Senate committee last year, Lynn said, "Today somebody can walk into the DMV with a visa that expires in two weeks and get a drivers license for five years. I don't think that makes any sense."

The bill would require DMV clerks to check the status of non-citizens and ensure the expiration date of their licenses wasn't greater than that of their visas. A documented alien authorized to stay in the country indefinitely would get a license that had to be renewed annually instead of the 5-year licenses issued to citizens and immigrants with permanent resident status.

"There are some circumstances in which a foreign visitor to our land has gotten a driver's license and the date of the expiration significantly extends beyond what their visa does," Dyson said. "It's not our job to police what visas are issued or their expiration date, but we have a responsibility to see that our major means of identification is not used inappropriately."

Wielechowski said the bill is trouble. Federal law is complex with some 80 types of immigration and visa statuses.

"The purpose of driver's licenses is to make sure people can drive safely on our roads," Wielechowski said. The DMV shouldn't be turned "into an arm of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service," he said.

The bill would have a large impact in parts of Anchorage with big immigrant populations, he said. Mountain View is the most diverse community in the United States, and three of Alaska's high schools are among the top five diverse schools in the country, he said.

The bill "doesn't make us any safer," Wielechowski said. "The illegal aliens are not the ones who are going to be going down and registering for driver's licenses."

But Dyson responded that Wielechowski was making the bill more complex than it was.

"All this does is allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a license for less than 5 years," Dyson said. "It doesn't require them to inquire of the status, but indeed if they know that the visa is for a limited period, they have the option of not issuing a license for longer than that period."

Voting for the bill were Republican Sens. Dyson and Anna Fairclough (both Eagle River); Cathy Giessel and Kevin Meyer (both Anchorage); Charlie Huggins (Wasilla); Kelly, Click Bishop and John Coghill (all Fairbanks); Peter Micciche (Soldotna); Gary Stevens (Kodiak); Bert Stedman (Sitka); and Democrats Dennis Egan (Juneau) and Donald Olson (Golovin).

Opposed were Democrats Wielechowski, Hollis French and Berta Gardner (all Anchorage) and Republican Mike Dunleavy (Wasilla).

Three senators had excused absences: Democrats Johnny Ellis (Anchorage) and Lyman Hoffman (Bethel) and Republican Lesil McGuire (Anchorage).

Reach Richard Mauer at or 500-7388.


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