Tennessee Ends Cards for Immigrant Drivers

Times Staff Writer

Tennessee has ended its policy of issuing "certificates for driving" to illegal immigrants, citing federal investigations that uncovered applicants using fraudulent documents -- and even bribing state workers -- to obtain driving privileges, officials said Friday.

The state began giving immigrants the certificates in July 2004, with the hope of balancing domestic security and traffic concerns. The cards give holders the legal right to drive but, unlike driver's licenses, they are not to be used for identification purposes. For instance, they cannot be used to board an airplane.

By doing so, Tennessee officials had hoped to solve a problem that has bedeviled other states, including California, where some lawmakers continue to press for full driver's licenses for illegal immigrants despite opposition from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Tennessee model was criticized early on from diverse quarters. Anti-immigration forces worried that it gave legitimacy to illegal immigrants. Immigration-rights groups feared that police and others would be confused, and therefore inconsistent, in dealing with cardholders.

Officials in the capital, Nashville, grew concerned in recent months as federal investigations uncovered numerous instances of fraud by illegal immigrants.

Bob Corney, a spokesman for Tennessee's Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, said the governor's office was informed that immigrants were coming from other states to get the certificates, using forged residency documents. Last month, a former worker at a driver's license office was sentenced to two years in federal prison for issuing more than 40 certificates to unqualified immigrants, taking a $400 bribe for each fraudulent card.

"At this point it just seems that we've got this very ... serious problem, and we really felt that the appropriate thing to do was to suspend this program," Corney said.

When Bredesen proposed the 2004 law, he billed it as a get-tough measure, because the state previously had allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Bredesen said the law would continue to ensure safe streets, because illegal immigrants would still have to pass a driving test to obtain the certificates.

The law also made the certificates the only avenue for legal immigrants to obtain driving privileges in Tennessee. That policy is the target of a federal class-action lawsuit, now on appeal, which alleges that it violates the Constitution's equal protection clause.

In a press release Friday, Department of Safety officials said they would work with legislators to change the law and allow legal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

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