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    New driver's license rules kick in early

    After being swamped by immigrants trying to beat the clock, the state switches to the new rules ahead of schedule.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 15, 2001


    The state of Florida has hustled to impose new anti-terrorism rules that make it harder for noncitizens to get Florida drivers' licenses.

    The rules originally were to change next week, but state licensing offices have been swamped with immigrants rushing to get drivers' licenses before the new rules take effect.

    So the state changed the rules Thursday.

    "Word had gotten around, and we were beginning to see a stampede of people eager to get licenses under the old procedures," said Robert Sanchez, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "So we switched to the new procedure ahead of schedule."

    The stampede happened in South Florida, where long lines and confusion greeted scores of immigrants trying to get licenses in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The situation in the Tampa Bay area wasn't that extreme.

    The changes are intended to make it harder for would-be terrorists to blend in. At least 13 of the 19 terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks had Florida ID cards or driving permits.

    Under the new rules, noncitizens in Florida's high-population areas must go to specific licensing offices to get drivers' licenses or ID cards. Staffers at those offices have been trained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to recognize altered or fake documents, Sanchez said.

    In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, residents who are not U.S. or Canadian citizens are allowed to go to only one office in each county. The Pinellas office is at 6855 62nd Ave. N in Pinellas Park. For an appointment, call (7270 547-7687. The Hillsborough office is at 4100 W. Martin Luther King Blvd. in Tampa. Call (813) 871-7375 for an appointment.

    In less populated counties, such as Citrus, Hernando and Pasco, noncitizens can go to any licensing office.

    Before, anyone with the proper documents could walk into a licensing office and walk out with a permit or ID the same day. Now, noncitizens receive a 30-day temporary paper permit. During that time, an applicant's documents are copied and cross-checked with immigration authorities. If everything matches, the state will mail the applicant a license.

    Also, under the new rules, a noncitizen's driving permit will expire at the same time his or her visa expires.

    Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that noncitizens shouldn't get drivers' licenses that expire after their visas, so he ordered the rules changed.

    -- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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