Four out of five illegal immigrants seeking driver’s licenses under a new D.C. law have failed a written knowledge test — a rocky start to a program that in its first two months has issued 268 licenses, according to city officials.
The failure rate of 80 percent compares with a 58 percent failure rate for people seeking traditional driver’s licenses, the Department of Motor Vehicles told a D.C. Council committee. In addition, a check of the DMV website this week shows a massive backlog in appointments required to apply for the District’s “limited-purpose license.” The first available date for an illegal immigrant to get an appointment is in March, and more than 6,000 appointments are pending.
The implementation is frustrating some city officials, including the D.C. Council member who sponsored the legislation to get the program started.
“On the negative side of the ledger is how this is being managed and how the DMV is handling this and their inability to efficiently help people that are applying,” said Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. Ms. Cheh provided statistics on the program that her committee received from the DMV.
The law, which took effect May 1, allows illegal immigrants to get licenses that allow them to drive and obtain auto insurance, but the cards can’t be used for federal identification purposes. The council passed the legislation last year, and Mayor Vincent C. Gray signed it into law in November.
The District joined 11 states in adopting such a measure and is not the only place that has had problems implementing the program.
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After the law was enacted in Colorado last year, the DMV’s system became clogged with advanced requests, with 823 appointments reportedly scheduled the first day. Colorado has not officially started issuing limited-purpose licenses, but DMV officials estimate that they will have more than 40,000 applicants by the time the program begins Aug. 1.
In California, which will begin issuing the licenses Jan. 1, five facilities are being built to accommodate what is expected to be a huge demand. But six months ahead of implementation, officials are still mired in problems that include what documents immigrants should be required to provide, the design of the license and even whether the process is cost-prohibitive to applicants.
In Nevada, officials told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month that demand had subsided after an early crush of applications. They said more than 16,000 people had received what they call “driver authorization cards” in the first six months of the program. That state has a failure rate of about 67 percent for the cards compared with a 57 percent rate for regular driver’s licenses.
In all of the states that have passed legislation granting licenses to illegal immigrants, the bills have been the subject of controversy. Opponents argue that such measures represent an unnecessary concession to people who are in the country illegally, and supporters say they promote public safety.
Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said no evidence shows that giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses has improved public safety, especially given that many don’t make it past the written exam.
“You could argue that just studying for the test could make a better driver,” said Mr. Camarota, whose group favors a crackdown on immigration. “But these licenses could facilitate illegal activity such as getting a job or avoiding detention. Those who don’t pass the test could just keep on driving.”
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Mr. Camarota said one of the biggest challenges in implementing a statewide program is the lack of verifiable documentation.
“Verifying people’s identity is very difficult,” he said. “You’ve been issuing driver’s licenses to people who can’t verify their identity so they can make a new [identity].”
In the District, applicants must provide primary proof of identification, such as an unexpired passport, as well as secondary documents that include a foreign birth certificate, driver’s license or school records. Other records, such as utility or tax bills, must be submitted to prove D.C. residency.
Making appointments to test for a license requires virtually no verifying information. Before the bill was passed, advocates argued that asking for phone numbers or email addresses would hinder immigrants who don’t have that information.
DMV officials told Ms. Cheh’s committee that has led to other problems, such as a rate of no-shows as high as 40 percent and no way to eliminate duplicate reservations.
Ms. Cheh said that requesting, not requiring, more information from applicants could help facilitate the process.
DMV officials said the failure rate on the knowledge test also has slowed the process. Those who fail the knowledge test are unable to move on to the skills test and have to make another appointment.
Anne Schaufele, a lawyer who works for Ayuda, a nonprofit immigration group, said limited literacy and language discrepancies could be reasons why people are failing.
“There may be an issue with the Spanish in the booklet being different than the Spanish in the test,” Ms. Schaufele said. “If you have two different people writing the test and the manual, then it is likely that a person could get a question wrong.”
Ms. Schaufele said many illegal immigrants do not have enough access to the study manuals.
“A very concrete thing that they can do would be to provide the manual as a printout,” Ms. Schaufele said, “even if it was for purchase. Otherwise, a lot of our clients who don’t have access to a computer won’t be able to study.”
A 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated the population of illegal immigrants in the District to be 25,000. DMV officials said the city is trying to ensure that customers are accommodated with language interpretation services.
As in states, D.C. officials wrestled with the difficulty of issuing licenses that would enable illegal immigrants to drive but not bring undue attention to their status. After running afoul of the Department of Homeland Security, officials backed off a plan for illegal immigrants to be issued licenses that are indistinguishable from those available to legal residents.
Council member Jim Graham, a Ward 1 Democrat whose community is home to a large immigrant population, co-introduced the bill that authorized the driver’s licenses but refused to vote for it after lawmakers rejected a uniform license.
Mr. Graham predicted that a separate license would deter illegal immigrants from signing up and considered the number of licenses issued to be high because of the risk illegal immigrants take by having separate licenses.
“The undocumented immigrants I know want to be below the radar and they don’t want to call attention to themselves,” Mr. Graham said. “It’s a license that classifies them as immigrants.”
Ms. Cheh said the separate licenses do not seem to have discouraged applicants.
“There are thousands of people who have attempted to get appointments and get a license, so apparently there’s a desire and a willingness to try to get them and accept them as they are,” Ms. Cheh said. “People are not shying away.”