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Driver's licenses for migrants? Not in Mexico

Chris Hawley
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Nov. 15, 2007 12:00 AM

MEXICO CITY - The question of whether to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants ignited a national debate in the United States. But in Mexico, the largest source of U.S. immigrants, there's no question: Here, you must be a legal resident to get a driver's license.

All of Mexico's 31 states, along with Mexico City, require foreigners to present a valid visa if they want a driver's license, according to a survey of states by The Arizona Republic.

"When it comes to foreigners, we're a little more strict here," said Alejandro Ruíz, director of education at the Mexican Automobile Association.

Immigrant drivers zoomed into the national spotlight after presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said a move by the New York governor to give licenses to illegal immigrants "makes a lot of sense" during an Oct. 30 debate.

On Wednesday, Clinton backed off that plan.

Proponents said the plan would have made the roads safer by ensuring that drivers are trained and insured, but the ensuing public outcry forced Gov. Eliot Spitzer to abandon the effort Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., planned to file a bill this week that would bar states from any future attempts to give licenses to illegal immigrants.

Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington allow drivers to get licenses without proving they are legal residents, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Most other states, including Arizona, require applicants to prove they are citizens or legal residents.

Mexicans make up the bulk of illegal immigrants in the United States, accounting for an estimated 6 million of the 11.5 million undocumented residents as of March 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Mexico's Foreign Relations Secretariat declined to comment on the controversy this week, but the Mexican government has fought U.S. restrictions on licenses in the past.

In 2004, the former Mexican consul in New York, Arturo Sarukhan, called such rules "a policy without a purpose" during a hearing in the New York State Assembly.

Sarukhan is now the Mexican ambassador in Washington.

Yet, licensing offices in all of Mexico's 31 states, along with the Federal District, where Mexico City is located, said they require applicants to prove their citizenship, preferably by showing a federal voter-registration card issued by the Federal Elections Institute.

Of those, 28 states and the Federal District said they would issue licenses to foreigners only if they present valid FM-2 or FM-3 residency visas.

The central Mexican states of Morelos, Puebla and Guerrero are more lenient. Foreigners there can get a driver's license with a valid tourist visa, or FMT.

Tourist visas are issued by federal immigration agents at airports and border crossing points.

Foreign tourists who are in Mexico temporarily can also drive using their foreign licenses, states said. Most U.S. states, including Arizona, have a similar exemption for temporary visitors.

Mexican officials said the application rules are strictly enforced, especially in southern states that have a problem with illegal immigrants from Central America.

"Last week a man came here (with a tourist visa) and said he was working as a deliveryman," said Denia Gurgua, manager of the driver's license office in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the southern state of Chiapas.

She said she denied him a license because he did not have a visa to work in Mexico.

"Our constitution has certain restrictions for foreigners," she said.

U.S. proponents of tougher restrictions worry that having a driver's license helps legitimize illegal immigrants, making it harder to detect and remove them.

"The fact that all 31 states in Mexico would have such a common-sense position . . . shows to me a certain hypocrisy on the part of the Mexican government, because they are constantly criticizing those of us in Congress who want immigration laws to be tougher up here," said King of New York.

But immigrant advocates says the two countries don't compare. U.S. states are trying to protect other motorists from millions of illegal immigrants who are already driving, said Tyler Moran, an expert on driver's licenses at the National Immigration Law Center.

Mexico's pool of foreign residents is much smaller, about 492,000 people in a country of 105 million, according to the 2000 census.

"It may be a bit like comparing apples and oranges," Moran said. "The (U.S. states) are dealing in reality, and it's better public policy to have people actually have licenses, have identification, have insurance than not."

Republic reporter Sergio Solache contributed to this article.