District's Latest Immigration News Comes at Key Time for Congress

With the Senate preparing to begin formal debate on a massive bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, the nation’s capital is pursuing immigration legislation of its own.

Last week, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced his intent to push legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for and receive driver’s licenses.

“This legislation puts us in the vanguard of a national movement to help not only immigrant communities but also our entire community by making our city a safer and more just place,” Gray said in his weekly radio address on May 5.

D.C. would join five states — Utah, Washington, New Mexico, Illinois and D.C.’s neighbor, Maryland — that have already adopted laws to give individuals driving privileges even if they cannot prove their legal residency.

Ordinarily, it would seem to be somewhat risky for D.C. government to explore legislation relating to a hot-button issue that’s already on Congress’ radar. Congress, after all, has the final say over whether local laws can or can’t be put into effect, either by passing a disapproval resolution within a certain time window or through policy riders.

Some key lawmakers involved in drafting immigration overhaul bills in the House and Senate say they don’t support giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. It could be problematic as they work toward a bipartisan, bicameral, comprehensive immigration deal that will inevitably have to contain concessions and compromises to pass muster with various stakeholders.

But in conversations with CQ Roll Call, members on both sides of the aisle suggested that the D.C. legislative push isn’t on their radar and that even those on Capitol Hill who oppose giving driver’s licenses to undocumented workers are not likely to invest themselves in the issue or in what the D.C. Council could pass as early as this summer.

One of the members of the Senate’s “gang of eight,” John McCain, R-Ariz., said it was “not on the top of [his] list of priorities.”

Another member of the group, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that while he “personally oppose[s] it,” he did not anticipate the issue coming up in the overall debate that will kick off at the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Even lawmakers who are quick to assert their right to legislate to the District of Columbia said they didn’t feel strongly about this particular issue.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., is the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and has cited Congress’ “constitutional authority” over the District in cases where he has sought to curb abortion practices in D.C.

In the 112th Congress, he introduced legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks in D.C. It failed to get the two-thirds majority required to pass on the House floor under suspension of the rules, and he said he plans to push for the bill’s consideration again this year.

He suggested, however, that his interest in D.C. affairs ended at the abortion debate: “I’m the Constitution chairman, so I gotta pay attention to these sort of things, but otherwise I don’t have any specific focus on D.C. at all,” Franks told CQ Roll Call after describing his concern with the District’s lack of restrictions on when abortion can be performed. As for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, he said only that he generally was unsupportive.

On the opposite side of the issue, a handful of House Democrats who support the initiative in D.C. and in the other five states said they don’t expect the issue to come up in any prominent way when discussions about an immigration overhaul begin on the House side.

“Given the positive nature of the discussion and the uplifting debate that we’re having, I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the chamber’s key players in drafting the chamber’s immigration proposal. “I don’t foresee it as a problem.”