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License offices struggling to meet demand

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BALTIMORE (AP) — Advocates are calling on the state Motor Vehicle Administration to improve its services to foreign nationals, saying long waiting times and unclear requirements have led to immigrant drivers being exploited.

Among the complaints are that the MVA's phone lines are constantly busy, and applicants have to wait as long as six months to make an appointment. This results in opportunists offering to make appointments for immigrants for as much as $100, advocates say.

State officials say they are striving to provide better services to immigrants while balancing security.

Maryland is one of eight states that gives driver's licenses and identification cards to foreign-born residents, regardless of their immigration status.

Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, Baltimore County Republican, said illegal aliens from other states are flooding to Maryland to get licenses.

"Maryland is one of the worst states in the country and is popularly known through the grapevine for this," said Mr. McDonough, who opposes leniency for illegal aliens. "It has put a huge burden on the MVA."

In 2003, the MVA implemented an application process for foreign citizens. Since September, it has required in-person appointments at one of 10 MVA offices to review documents.

But the agency has struggled to keep up with the demand for services.

"This is the latest manifestation of the overall lack of services to the foreign-born community and the differential services they receive at the MVA," said Elizabeth Alex, an advocate with immigrant rights group CASA of Maryland. The group filed a lawsuit against the MVA two years ago, claiming that it was creating illegal barriers to immigrants trying to obtain licenses.

MVA Administrator John T. Kuo said the agency is reaching out to groups in the Hispanic and Asian communities to find ways to better serve customers.

This summer, the agency will spend half a million dollars to open a call center, equipped with new scheduling technology and staffed by employees fluent in Spanish, devoted solely to handling the requests for appointments.

Now, the MVA receives 4,000 calls a day for all services, and only eight of the 65 operators are assigned to schedule appointments.

"Part of the challenge we're experiencing is that individuals don't understand the documentation requirements," Mr. Kuo said. "We are really trying to build a win-win partnership with many of the community advocates."

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