A bill that would establish two tiers of driver's licenses — one for people who can prove they are citizens or legal residents and the other for people who cannot — drew heated debate in a House committee hearing Thursday.

Under the bill, HB1577, the second category of license could not be used for identification purposes and would be so marked.

Washington is one of two states — the other being New Mexico — that does not require proof of citizenship to obtain a license or Identicard.

At the extreme, some argued that the bill would prevent illegal immigrants from flocking to Washington. Others argued that the bill would turn the Department of Licensing into an immigration agency.

The bill's lead sponsor said neither was his intent.

"This is not about immigration ... a driver's license is to license people to drive," said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, after the House Transportation Committee hearing. "If people are going to use it for identification purposes it should have a higher threshold."

Still, most of the debate centered on immigration.

A handful of immigration and civil-rights groups along with union members said a two-tier system would decrease safety on roads because it would discourage immigrants from applying for a license and completing proper driver's education.

"Immigrants in our community are already vulnerable and mistrustful of our government agencies, and they're not likely to want to get the second-tier license that marks them as undocumented," said Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

He noted that some legal immigrants have to wait years for documents that prove their lawful presence.

The bill also requires the department of licensing to record the citizenship status of applicants, something that would cost $6.4 million for the 2011-2013 biennium, according to the bill's fiscal note.

The bill is one of more than half a dozen in both legislative chambers aimed at requiring proof of citizenship for driver's licenses and permits.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, the chair of the House Transportation Committee said after the hearing she considers Armstrong's bill a middle ground because it still would allow immigrants to obtain licenses to drive.

"This is not a punitive bill," said Clibborn, who had to interrupt testimony multiple times during the hearing to clarify what the bill said. "I felt like nobody read the bill actually," she added.

-Queenie Wong, Seattle Times