Blunt proposes ban on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Gov. Matt Blunt announced another piece to his crackdown on illegal immigration today: a legislative proposal that would bar Missouri from issuing driver's licenses to people who are in the state illegally.

The state already has safeguards intended to prevent illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses, but Missouri lacks a specific law against it, Blunt said.

"This would clarify in law that the state of Missouri will not issue a driver's license to an illegal immigrant," Blunt said Monday during a news conference at the Kansas City Police Department. "And it would create penalties that do not exist today for those who attempt to help an illegal obtain a driver's license."

Blunt, a Republican, also was holding news conferences in Springfield, Cape Girardeau and St. Louis to announce the plan.

"Missouri will not become a zone of lawlessness," he said. "Rather than wait on Washington, we will continue to take steps to enforce immigration law at the state level."

Driver's licenses are issued in Missouri by the Department of Revenue through scores of contractor-run offices around the state.

People who are not U.S. citizens currently can get Missouri driver's licenses by showing a federal form validating their lawful presence. Their status also is checked through a federal database, said department spokesman David Griffith.

Under a change made in 2005, those temporary licenses last only until the expiration of that person's approval to be in the United States, Griffith said. Previously, non-citizens could receive Missouri driver's licenses with standard expiration dates, meaning their licenses could have remained valid after their approval to be here had ended, he said.

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, but he ended up withdrawing that plan. Blunt said he was opposed to the New York proposal.

"A plan like that might sound good to politicians in New York City or Washington, but not here in Missouri," Blunt told reporters in Kansas City. "We enforce our laws, and we defend law-abiding citizens. And we reserve the benefits of citizenship for legal residents."

Oren Shur, a spokesman for Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon's gubernatorial campaign, said Blunt's proposal doesn't offer anything new.

"Giving licenses to illegal immigrants is already against the law in Missouri," Shur said. "The Blunt administration issues all the driver's licenses in the state, so if they have been giving licenses to illegal immigrants, then the governor has some explaining to do."

Nixon also opposes giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Blunt's legislative proposal is the latest piece in his crackdown on illegal immigrants, which he launched in late August.

Already, Blunt has asked state law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of every person presented for incarceration. He said Monday that officers so far have turned 110 illegal immigrants over to federal authorities for detention.

Blunt also is pushing for state law enforcement officers to become deputized so they can enforce federal immigration law. He said that process should be complete soon.

Blunt also has asked for tighter oversight of state-financed construction projects to ensure contractors who get state incentives don't use illegal immigrants.

In March, state and federal officials teamed up on an operation that netted the arrests of 22 illegal immigrants, who were working for a state janitorial contractor and suspected of using stolen identities.

Blunt canceled the contract with Sam's Janitorial Services and barred it from doing future business with the state. He signed an executive order directing state agencies to review state contractors and ensure their employees are legally eligible to work in the U.S.

Rita Valenciano, president of the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations in the Kansas City area, said she believes Blunt's new proposal is politically and racially motivated.

"This seems to be a good year to jump on the bandwagon and bash minority groups and promote hatred and divisiveness to win votes," Valenciano said. "Whenever something like this comes out, it always bolsters people who have that hate rhetoric. That's one of our concerns. It again puts (the Hispanic) up as a target."

Blunt said Monday that his efforts are not racially motivated and that Hispanics are not being targeted.

"Most of us are here because immigrants came to this country," he said. "Missourians recognize that it adds a lot when people legally come to the United States. It enriches our culture, it strengthens our economy and productivity. We welcome legal immigration to this country, and we welcome those who are legally working here who aren't citizens."