Cochran questions Gov.'s driver's license plan

By Thomas Wilson

   Legislation introduced by Gov. Phil Bredesen designed to stop issuing Tennessee drivers' licenses to undocumented persons does not go far enough, according to one upstate legislator.
   "We are rewarding those who are breaking the law," said Rep. Jerome Cochran, R-Elizabethton, who believes the legislation creates a legal loophole ripe for exploitation.
   Cochran said a portion of the governor's bill allows Tennessee residents unable to establish legal presence in the United States to be eligible for a new "certificate for driving." The certificate will prominently state that it is issued for driving purposes only and not for identification purposes. The certificate must be renewed annually.
   Bredesen's proposal divides the criteria for those obtaining a driver's license into two tiers. Those who are legally present in the United States, citizens or immigrants, may be issued a driver's license valid during the period of time they are authorized to live in the United States. The second tier gives eligibility to illegal residents to obtain a driving certificate that does not function as legal identification. The legislation was proposed in response to increased homeland security concerns that came to light after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
   "It is clear to me that we need to make some changes," said Bredesen when the bill was unveiled last week, "and what I'm proposing is a moderate, common-sense solution that balances homeland security concerns with public safety concerns in a responsible way."
   Cochran co-sponsored a House bill this session to grant foreign nationals a driver's license only if they could provide a social security number or a green card verifying citizenship from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
   An INS report released in 2001 estimated approximately seven million illegal immigrants resided in the United States in 2000. The report estimated the number of illegal immigrants living in Tennessee at 46,000 -- an increase of 400 percent from a 1990 report that estimated 9,000 illegal residents lived in the state. By comparison, the INS report estimated over one million illegal residents lived in Texas and 2.2 million were living in California.
   The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which now oversees functions previously performed by INS, said the report included an estimated annual growth rate of 250,000 new illegals.
   Cochran said that even if Bredesen's legislation becomes law, Tennessee would remain one of a handful of states that allow illegals to obtain driver's licenses.
   "The fact is after 9-11, we've got to be tough on our immigration," he said. "We've got employers who are basically breaking the law by hiring illegals. We are going to have to address that at some point in the future."
   Bredesen asked the state Department of Safety and the Office of Homeland Security to review the Tennessee drivers' license rules situation in light of increased homeland security and public safety concerns.