Barring licenses for illegal immigrants

In most states, drivers must prove they're legally in the country to get a license. But tightening requirements make it impossible for even some legal immigrants to get behind the wheel.

Carolina Ortiz moved from Buenos Aires to Austin, Texas, in October of 2007, and she could hardly wait to explore the city, meet new people and adjust to an American way of life.

But Ortiz, 26, quickly realized she couldn’t do any of those things without driving - something she had never needed to do in her home city.

Twice she brought every identifying document she had to the Texas Department of Public Safety, including the family “K” visa that had permitted her to enter the U.S., marry her American fiancé and apply for a green card. Twice she begged for a driver’s license. And twice she was turned down, because they said she couldn’t prove she was legally in the United States.

So Ortiz spent four months keeping the house immaculately clean, watching TV, walking her dog and waiting for her husband to come home. Without a license, she said, she felt “really out of place. You’re trying to meet people and get adjusted, and you have this constant feeling of inadequacy and not belonging.”

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Neil Kelly waits outside his home in suburban Indiana for a ride to work. (Courtesy of Amber Kelly)

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Neil Kelly's neighborhood has no sidewalks. (Courtesy of Amber Kelly)

Driver’s licenses have become a hot topic in the illegal immigration debate. Many states have tightened restrictions on access to driver’s licenses, and Department of Motor Vehicles employees, unclear on new rules, sometimes deny licenses to eligible immigrants. Today, every state except Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico, Utah and Washington requires proof of legal presence in the United States.

In January, Oregon began requiring applicants to prove legal presence and Michigan started allowing only citizens and permanent residents to get licenses. Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York proposed a special license for them in 2007. Former California Gov. Gray Davis granted undocumented immigrants the right to licenses in 2003, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger revoked that right the same year after Davis was recalled from office. And the harder it becomes to get a license, the more immigrants are affected.

A license means more than being able to drive in a place without accessible public transportation. It can confer, among other things, the ability to get insurance, establish residency, prove age or open a bank account. “The driver’s license affects everything in your life,” said Ortiz. “You use it for everything.”

While the tighter restrictions inconvenience some legal immigrants, proponents of the rules say the constraints are essential.

“In doing its job, the DMV is the front line of ID security,” said Jason King of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the group that represents DMVs across North America. Since the driver’s license has been accepted as America’s ID card, he said, “the DMVs are in a position to do their due diligence to secure that process. I think the American public wants that and I think they deserve it.”

Tyler Moran of the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrants’ advocacy group, disagrees.

“Licensing is a state matter that has to do with public safety and identification, and immigration status has nothing to do with that,” she said. “People need cars just to carry on their daily life.”

Limiting access to licenses means more uninsured drivers, she said, increasing others’ premiums and making the roads more dangerous.

Proving legal presence means furnishing an official immigration document or a long-term visa. But the 50,000 people who move to the United States each year on short-term “K” visas must wait between three months and several years for those documents, often precluding the possibility of driving for some or all of that time.

When Neil Kelly moved from Newcastle, England, to Newburgh, Ind., a suburb of Evansville, to marry his fiancée, Amber, he didn’t imagine he’d have to rely on her for everything. But after a month or so, he began to feel trapped in the house. “I would think, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’“ he said.

Worst of all, there were no sidewalks. “People must think, ‘Eh, we live in Newburgh, we don’t need sidewalks, we’ve all got five cars,’“ joked Kelly, 29, who was used to walking or taking the bus in England.

Even before Sept. 11, 2001, the majority of states required that people be lawfully in the country to get a license. “But since then, because immigration has been framed as a security issue, there’s been a flurry of bills and legislative activity around restricting access to licenses,” Moran said. “Lawful immigrants can get lost in the mix.”

The Department of Homeland Security released federal standards in January for issuing licenses, including the data that must be included on the card and verification of the identity and legal presence of those who apply for them.

States are expected to comply by May, but many have applied for extensions or passed resolutions denouncing the act. Licenses from states that choose not to comply, or any special licenses created for undocumented immigrants, will not be valid for air travel or bank transactions.

Some states, including Kelly’s adopted state of Indiana, have begun to comply, which can mean extra months waiting for a license while an applicant’s Social Security number is verified.

For now, Ortiz is just happy she has her license, obtained two days after her immigration document arrived in the mail, and she is interviewing for jobs. But, she says, “There are other people coming into this situation, and it would be good if it could be changed.”

Not everyone is so motivated to start driving. After experiencing life with a personal chauffeur - his wife - Kelly isn’t so sure he wants his independence back. He suspects Amber Kelly will ask him to run more errands when he gets his license, probably within the next three months.

“Well,” she laughed, “I probably will.”