Legislature urged to OK law requiring proof of lawful presence

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Outgoing Secretary of State Sam Reed is urging state lawmakers to pass legislation next year requiring those applying for a driver's license or ID card in Washington to show proof of lawful presence — something 48 other states now require.

Reed's recommendation to the 2013 Legislature is based on the inability of his office to use a massive immigration database that election officials had hoped to use to scrub noncitizens from the state's voter-registration rolls.

States that use the database — called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE — are able to search through 100 million names using so-called alien-registration numbers.

These numbers, assigned to immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security, typically accompany the documents that immigrants present as proof of lawful presence when applying for a license.

But because the state does not require immigrants to provide proof of legal residence, it has no record of alien-registration numbers and therefore no way to access the SAVE system, Reed noted.

Washington had tried to gain access to the SAVE program since launching its statewide voter-registration database in 2006, but the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly denied the request, saying use of the system for scrubbing voter rolls was inappropriate.

In July, after a yearlong battle, the department finally granted Florida access to SAVE and pledged access to other states, like Washington, that requested it.

While pointing out his intention is not to purge voter rolls in any discriminatory way, Reed in a statement said, "we do have a strong and continuing commitment to keeping our voter rolls updated and accurate, so that only qualified citizens are allowed to vote."

Government agencies use SAVE, a Web-based database, to determine the immigration status of applicants for benefits, so only those entitled can receive them.

SAVE does not include the names of illegal immigrants but rather lists those who are living in the country legally as noncitizens — green-card holders, foreign students or people here on work visas -- who are not permitted to vote.

'Sensitive issue'

Reed's call for the legislation comes amid voter-related controversies in other states in this pivotal election year. Access to the SAVE database in those states has become a point of controversy, with Republicans arguing that voter purges and other restrictions are intended to prevent fraud, while Democrats contend the measures are designed to suppress turnout among minorities and others who tend to vote for Democrats.

"We in Washington are trying to transcend the partisan politics and rancor we have seen in some states on this obviously sensitive issue of voting rights," Reed said.

He added that by requiring proof of lawful presence for those obtaining driver's licenses and then retaining the alien-registration numbers provided, the state can compare information in its statewide voter-registration database with information on immigrants.

The state Legislature tried and failed in 2011 to pass legislation requiring legal proof of residence before granting a driver's license.

Washington and New Mexico are now the only states that grant driver's licenses to those in the country illegally.