Jan 20, 2003
License procedures frustrate immigrants
BY JUAN ANTONIO LIZAMA
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Pedro Rivas was driving a friend's car when a police officer pulled him over. He had no driver's license.
When Rivas appeared in court on Sept. 13, 2002, the judge fined him $250.
Rivas, 22, had made repeated attempts to obtain a learner's permit. In April, he went to a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office in Chesterfield County and presented four documents - a photo identification from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a proof of Virginia residence, a Social Security number and his Salvadoran passport.
But he still couldn't get a license.
The clerk denied his applica- tion because his passport showed no evidence of a U.S. visa. Efforts at different offices ended in frustration.
"I always came out dejected, wanting to cry," he said in Spanish.
Many immigrants have gone through similar frustrations when trying to obtain a driver's license or similar ID after DMV tightened the rules in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
DMV regulations don't yet require that immigrants applying for a driver's license show proof of legal status in the United States, but Virginia's attorney general and a key legislator are pushing legislation that would do just that.
And to complicate matters, the murkiness of DMV procedures has prevented many qualified One of the problems, say critics of the DMV's new procedures, is that DMV clerks don't have the training needed to determine just who holds what immigration status, and how that should affect their application for a driver's license.
Herber Rodz,Rivas' English-As-A-Second-Language teacher, went to the DMV office with him to serve as an interpreter. Rodz told the clerk his student had crossed the border illegally, but the INS had issued him a work authorization.
The explanation didn't help. Unable to get a learner's permit, Rivas ran the risk of driving without a license.
He tried again on Jan. 6 with the same documents and a letter from the INS explaining his application for a renewal of his work authorization was under review.
DMV finally issued him a learner's permit.
Sen. Jay O'Brien, R-Fairfax, has proposed legislation for DMV to require proof of legal presence in the country and tying expiration of licenses to people's legal-immigration status.
He said he has been made aware that if his legislation goes through, many documented immigrants won't be able to obtain IDs.
DMV issues a driver's license for five years, O'Brien said. If someone is allowed to come into the country for two years, he would have the ID for three more years.
"It is my position that Virginia has no . . . authority to extend an individual to stay in the country," he said. "That's a federal issue. I think that by doing that, we are encouraging a person to abscond."
Hector Moreno, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Central Virginia, said those affected are people like his son.
Sebastian Moreno is 16. He attends James River High School, and it's time for him to obtain his learner's permit so he can drive when he is ready to go to college.
"I think that if one is legal, one can do things correctly," Hector Moreno said. "But DMV is making people do things incorrectly. DMV has every reason not to issue a license to those who don't have [documentation], but to those who have legal documents, why deny it?"
Ofelia Robaina, an immigrant counselor with the Refugee and Immigration Services of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, said the definition of "legal" is too complex for most DMV clerks to understand.
Only an expert or a person trained in immigration law could perform a job effectively at an DMV office, she said.
"When people talk about illegal, they have to think twice about who they call illegal," Robaina said. "To find out if a person is legal or illegal is very difficult and changes from day to day," she said. "[DMV] clerks don't have that immigration background."
Moreno, a native of Colombia, entered the country with his family in 1999. He held an H-2B visa as a qualified worker. His son entered on an H-4 visa as a dependent of a legal worker.
The clerk at the Chesterfield DMV officer where Sebastian Moreno applied for a permit said he needed a Social Security number or a letter from the Social Security Administration certifying that he didn't need a Social Security number.
The Morenos returned with the letter. The DMV clerk said he didn't have enough documentation and refused to tell them what else Sebastian needed, Hector Moreno said.
A DMV study released this month recommended that the General Assembly not take any action at this time "to require applicants for driver's licenses and ID cards to prove that their presence in the U.S. is lawful or to require that expiration of the documents be tied to the duration of an applicant's legal presence."
The DMV study concluded that requiring proof of an alien's legal presence in the United States:
According to the Hispanic Committee of Virginia, undocumented immigrants in Virginia annually contribute $77 million in federal income tax, $11 million in state income tax and $29.5 million in sales tax.
No state agency keeps statistics on how many accidents involve unlicensed drivers. DMV reported that in 2001, out of 262,327 accidents, 3,373 drivers - about 1.3 percent - were uninsured.
Sgt. John Bowman of the Richmond Police Department said it is nothing new for some people to be driving without a license or insurance. Uninsured motorists span all categories of people, he said.
"It doesn't matter if the driver is rich or poor, white, black, red, yellow, male or female, everything," Bowman said. "Whether [drivers have] got a million dollars or whether they have a dime."
Still, said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, the legal-presence law is necessary for public safety.
"Simply because people would break a law is no argument against the law," he said.
Community Officer Kurt Mutter of the Richmond police said he frequently deals with the problem of drivers without licenses. And it will only get worse with an increase in the immigrant population.
"They are going to drive," he said. "What are they going to do? They have to work."
Why wasn't he arrested on the spot?