Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Since March, the average weekly number of driver’s license applications by immigrants and illegal aliens has nearly doubled in Maryland, where legal residency is not required of applicants, according to the state Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA).

The number of out-of-country license applications, or those for noncitizens, has surged from an average of 946 a week to 1,800 a week since March, MVA spokesman Buel Young said.

MVA officials initially attributed the increase to multiple appointment bookings by foreign-born applicants, Mr. Young said. But the average number of out-of-country applications remained high even after the MVA last month stopped taking appointments and began processing twice as many applications through a walk-in process, he said.

“I don’t really have an answer” for the increase, Mr. Young said.

Virginia does not issue driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, and the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles does not track the number of out-of-country applications it processes.

Local immigrants say illegal aliens are contributing to Maryland’s surge in license applications by flocking to the state when their visas expire or by using the Maryland addresses of relatives.

“I heard that it’s easier [to get licenses] here because in other states you need documents, but here it’s not required,” said 16-year-old Marcela, a Salvadoran immigrant who lives in Silver Spring and did not want to give her last name.

Antonio Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant living in Hyattsville, said it is common for illegals to come to Maryland to apply for a license because a green card or Social Security card isn’t required.

Cameroonian immigrant Nelson Manga, 35, who is obtaining his green card, said it depends on what a license will be used for.

“Some people want to use it to identify themselves as permanent residents. That’s not right,” he said.

Although unlawful application for a license violates state law, there is no way to determine whether an illegal is falsely using the address of a relative, nor is it possible to track whether immigrants whose licenses have expired in other states move to Maryland and obtain a driver’s license, Mr. Young said.

Neither of those circumstances necessarily constitutes unlawful application if the person can prove state residency.

“Our task at the MVA is to determine whether someone is in fact who they say they are, so we require proof of age, identity and Maryland residency,” Mr. Young said.

“If someone provides proper documentation such as bills or lease agreements establishing residency, we must accept it,” the MVA spokesman said. “Because proof of legal presence is not required in Maryland, we do not ask if you’re here legally or not.”

The Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License lists Maryland as one of eight states that do not require legal presence to get a license, and the Democrat-controlled Maryland General Assembly has three times rejected bills that would require it.

Last year, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which requires all motor-vehicle agencies in the country by May 2008 to verify applicants’ legal presence before issuing them licenses. Licenses from states that do not adopt the new national standards may not be allowed as identification to board planes or to enter federal buildings.

Overnight lines have formed outside several MVA branches since the agency began the walk-in application process nearly two months ago.

Kim Propeack, a spokeswoman for immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland, said the out-of-country application increase is more likely because MVA agents often dispense inaccurate information about what documents are required for licenses. Foreign-born applicants thus have to make several trips to provide the correct documentation, she said.

A suit filed last year by CASA against the MVA claims the agency, among other things, makes it more difficult for immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

“The MVA has for a long time been known for putting up extensive barriers for anyone not born in the United States,” Miss Propeack said. “Instead of looking at the totality of what people are submitting and telling them what to do, they’re doing it piecemeal, pointing out another problem each time people come back.”

Lenny Campello, a Cuban immigrant, said illegals shouldn’t be able to get licenses at all.

But Miss Propeack said illegals will continue to drive without licenses.

“Every single state experiences a fair amount of people coming in and trying to get licenses from other states,” she said. “It’s not special about Maryland, and it’s not special about immigrants.”

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