REAL ID Debate in Maryland Mixes 9/11, Day Laborers

Since Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005, which (among other things) mandates that all states require drivers prove their legal immigration status in order to get a license, several states have balked at the cost and myriad civil liberties issues stemming from the bill. Maine and Idaho have passed laws rejecting the new guidelines, and a number of other state legislatures are considering joining them, including Maryland. This week, however, the Maryland Senate debated a competing bill that would implement at least one part of the REAL ID rules – the proof of immigration status requirement. And although REAL ID was passed as part of emergency funding for the War on Terror, some are trying to refocus the debate away from civil liberties and on to anti-immigrant “quality of life” complaints. From The Washington Times:

Bill supporters told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee they were concerned about public safety and potential terrorist attacks because one of the September 11 hijackers obtained a Maryland driver's license.

"I live in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which has been in [newspapers] quite recently, and is really on its way to becoming the first authentic barrio in the county," said Susan Payne of Citizens Above Party. "The poison that's coming out of this state, known as the Maryland driver's license, has to be stopped because it's infecting the entire country."

Payne was also quoted in the Annapolis Capital, warning “You are driving people like me out of our home state.” She co-founded Citizens Above Party in response to the building of a day-laborer center in Gaithersburg, a prosperous D.C. suburb known for its New Urbanist planned communities.

The other founder of the anti-day-laborer group was Demos Chrissos, a veteran producer of Republican political ads who, like Susan Payne, is frequently quoted in the local media. Chrissos is also a professional anti-immigration activist on a national scale: He produced a TV ad for WeNeedAFence.com that included a shot of the World Trade Center being hit, and more recently produced ads around a campaign to pardon border agents convicted in a shooting. According to the online bio from his video marketing firm, Chrissos co-founded Citizens Above Party to “investigat[e] the suspected link between illegal immigration and widespread voter fraud across the nation.”

Of course, there’s no sign of “widespread voter fraud” by illegal immigrants anywhere except in the press releases of anti-immigrant groups and the politicians who court them, or of a link between suburban day laborers and anti-American terrorists. But press coverage of Payne’s rhetoric does demonstrate how easily the anti-immigrant movement can “infect” the REAL ID debate in Maryland and elsewhere. And while Payne comes off in the media as a typical concerned citizen, her partner’s work as a professional media consultant suggests that this confusion is part of their strategy.