AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine’s license residency issue took a sharp political turn Thursday as House Republicans expressed shock over a report that calls for tighter rules but stops short of saying illegal aliens should be prevented from getting driver’s licenses.

“At a time when our country is at war with Islamic extremists, it is absurd to give licenses to illegal aliens,” said House Minority Leader Josh Tardy of Newport. “These people could be anybody. But with an official license, they can board flights, enter government buildings, collect welfare and probably even vote.”

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap dismissed the GOP criticism. But he said that while the state has never been in the business of documenting U.S. immigration status, the percentage of Maine license holders whose legal presence is in question is “minuscule.”

The exchange came as illegal immigration – a prominent national issue that has become presidential debate fodder – has gained prominence in Maine, one of few states that do not require state residency is order to get a driver’s license.

A working group convened by Dunlap on Wednesday presented a report to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee recommending rules that limit Maine licenses to state residents. But it stopped short of recommending whether a license applicant must be a legal U.S. resident. The secretary of state endorsed the report, which is to be developed into a bill.

Dunlap’s office has maintained that a state law barring it from complying with the federal Real ID national identity card law in effect prohibits it from delving into the area of immigration.

House Republican leaders say the recommendations do not go far enough, noting that federal prosecutors have already caught out-of-state operators who brought illegal aliens to Maine to get licenses.

“Under the law, it is a federal crime to aid, abet or assist illegal aliens to remain in the United States,” Tardy said in a statement. “When you give them driver’s licenses, welfare, subsidized housing, free medical care and protected status, it’s clear that you are aiding them in remaining in our country.”

Dunlap disagreed that the state is not doing enough to stop illegal immigrants. With about 2,500 Maine licensed drivers lacking Social Security numbers, less than one-half of 1 percent of the state’s drivers could be – but aren’t necessarily – illegal immigrants, Dunlap said.

Two states with stricter residency checks, Virginia and Florida, issued licenses to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists, said Dunlap. Federal controls at the nation’s borders also couldn’t prevent them from carrying out their mission.

“Is the last bulwark (against illegal aliens) going to be a Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles service representative?” said Dunlap. “I think the public really needs to examine the rhetoric of this debate on a rational level.”

Democratic Gov. John Baldacci “absolutely supports tighter residency requirements for a driver’s license,” said the governor’s spokesman, David Farmer. “We shouldn’t be giving them to people who don’t live here.”

But Baldacci believes immigration status is a federal responsibility, Farmer said.

AP-ES-12-06-07 1730EST

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