State Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Williamson County) and state Representative Donna Rowland (R-Murfreesboro) failed in their efforts last year to repeal Public Chapter 158, the law that allows Tennessee driver-testing centers to issue driver's licenses to persons without Social Security numbers. But that was before September 11th and before five Middle-Eastern men claimed they each paid Katherine Smith, a testing center inspector, $1,000 to fraudulently issue them driver's licenses.
Smith was found burned to death in a mysterious car accident one day before she was scheduled to testify against the men.
With the license scandal making headlines nationally, Blackburn and Rowland's bill is being taken seriously this year by legislators who disregarded it last year, and activists and members of Tennessee's immigrant community are starting to get nervous.
"Since September 11th, [Blackburn has] been trying to ride the anti-immigrant sentiment," says David Lubell, community outreach coordinator for Latino Memphis Connection. "Last year she used the long lines as her reason, but then the lines got shorter and she didn't get anywhere with that reason. Since September 11th, she's been working off people's fears."
After introducing the bill, Blackburn stated the following in a June 7, 2001, press release: "It is not fair to law-abiding citizens of Tennessee nor is it fair to legal aliens and documented workers with proper documentation. They are no longer able to obtain their licenses in a timely fashion."
But Blackburn insists that now her motivation has changed.
"It's a public-safety issue," she says. "If you don't know the criminal and driving history of a person, you don't know who you are licensing."
This is a statement that makes Zilka Roman laugh out loud. The Tennessee state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Roman worries that if Blackburn succeeds in repealing the current license law public safety will be compromised.
"We won't even know who these people are without a license," says Roman. "We won't be able to track them. With the current law we've already been able to account for 50,000 more people living in Tennessee. Do you think we knew who these people were before? Absolutely not. This issue is about safety. People are going to drive whether they are licensed or not. If they are licensed we will know who they are and we can be assured that they know the rules of the road."
The Tennessee Department of Safety agrees with Roman.
"The department of safety's stance on this issue hasn't changed," says Beth Tucker Womack, public information officer for the department. "We want to make sure that people who are driving know the rules of the road. We didn't just open the floodgates with this law."
According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, in order to qualify for a driver's license a person without a Social Security number must: 1) sign an affidavit affirming that they have never been issued a Social Security number, 2) provide two forms of official government-issued identification, one with a photo, 3) provide two proofs of Tennessee residency, usually a utility and/or phone bill, and 4) pass the necessary tests.
In the Katherine Smith case, Lubell believes that the fraudulent licenses would have been issued with or without the current law.
"The reason why those people came to Tennessee from another state was to get a driver's license from a corrupt official," says Lubell. "Otherwise, why would they pay $1,000 for a driver's license? If the law is so lax, why would they have to bribe a public official?"
But Blackburn says that even the perception of relaxed licensing laws has already negatively impacted the state.
"Reciprocity has already been rescinded by some other states," says Blackburn, referring to the recent policy change in Florida. Officials in that state now say that a Tennessee driver's license alone will not be accepted as valid identification.
"It's important that we address this issue," says Blackburn.