By Lisa Rein and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 28, 2009; A01
No. 5284 Randolph Rd., in a Rockville shopping center, is a modest Parcel Plus store where small businesses rent mailboxes by the month. It's also the address used by at least 42 undocumented immigrants living in states along the Eastern Seaboard to fake a Maryland residence so they could get a driver's license, records show.
Most of them got away with it, authorities say, evidence that Maryland -- the last holdout east of the Colorado Rockies in the nationwide effort to tighten rules on how states issue driver's licenses -- has become a magnet for illegal immigrants from Georgia to Delaware seeking driving privileges.
Along with New Mexico, Hawaii and Washington state, Maryland does not check the immigration status of drivers when they apply for a license. The policy has made the state vulnerable to widespread fraud by illegal immigrants living outside Maryland -- as well as to criminals seeking to create false identities -- according to court records and interviews with state officials.
And in some cases, state workers who issue licenses have run sophisticated schemes right out of Motor Vehicle Administration branches. Many of those employees have been successfully prosecuted.
Security is the chief concern cited by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and lawmakers as the General Assembly debates whether to require license-seekers to verify their lawful presence in the country. It's a change the Democratic-controlled legislature has resisted out of sensitivity to immigrants. But to comply with a federal law known as Real ID, the state must show this year that legal residents have access to a secure, nationally recognized license.
"This is not about immigration policy," said Maryland's motor vehicle administrator, John Kuo. "It's about the security of our identification card."
Immigrant rights advocates support a two-tiered system that would also comply with federal law by allowing newcomers without proof of legal status to get a limited license for driving -- but not to board airplanes, enter federal buildings or cross borders. O'Malley and other opponents say that wouldn't stop the fraud problem.
If it doesn't pass its own law, Maryland would be forced to meet an early deadline to put into effect other costly provisions of the Real ID law.
Kuo could not say how many undocumented immigrants from other states have obtained a Maryland license. But he noted that although there are at most 300,000 illegal immigrants living in the state, since 2006 his agency has processed about 350,000 licenses for drivers using foreign documents without U.S. visa stamps.
Maryland's license is considered so insecure that some states, including Colorado, Arizona and Oklahoma, no longer accept it as a proof of identity for relocating drivers.
Similar concerns have led the District to deny all out-of-state licenses as proof of identity. Virginia still accepts them.
MVA officials said it is relatively easy for illegal immigrants from other states to get a Maryland license. They must take a driving test, but they can prove their identity with a foreign driver's license or passport even if it lacks a U.S. visa stamp, along with statements from cellphone companies or banks. Such bills are also used as proof of a Maryland address -- and if you call a bank or cellphone company, they will change the address with no questions asked.
Many give a friend's address, said a clerk at a Langley Park store that charges fees to help with the application process. The clerk said about three clients a month use that ruse.
"They're mainly from New Jersey. It's pretty obvious," said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
Others choose rural locations where mail is easy to intercept, such as Winback Farm, a horse farm near Maryland's northern border. On Jan. 16, 2008, a woman with a passport from Argentina named Gabriel Beatriz Wekid gave the farm's address to the MVA in Harford County and provided a Sprint wireless bill listing it as well. But another document raised a flag to the examiner: a letter from a Delaware agency.
Wekid really lived in Newark, Del., and had never been employed at Winback, according to the farm's human resources director. Wekid, who could not be located for comment, was charged with two violations of fraud law, court records show. She paid a $55 fine and was given 60 days probation.
Officials successfully prosecuted 250 cases of residency fraud last year. The MVA cancelled an additional 246 licenses it says were fraudulently obtained in 2007, including those delivered to the Parcel Plus on Randolph Road.
Owner Felix Heymann said he does not require customers to prove they live in Maryland. "They give us an address," he said, "but it's very difficult for us to verify it."
Bill Donoho, head of the MVA's fraud division, said this represents a sliver of the illegal activity. With four full-time investigators each juggling 30 alleged fraud cases, he said, "we can't quite cope with all of it."
MVA officials said the scale of attempted fraud is underscored by the volume of out-of-state calls to the toll-free number dedicated to scheduling appointments for applicants using foreign documents without U.S. visa stamps. During the last three months of 2008, almost one in four of the 297,1000 calls originated from 53 states and territories outside Maryland. Among them were 21,998 from Virginia.
Officials have since blocked out-of-state calls. But it's still extremely difficult to get one of the 2,000 weekly slots. Several immigrants outside the Beltsville branch said it took them as long as eight months to get through.
The waits have spawned a cottage industry charging hundreds of dollars to help get licenses: making appointments, reviewing documents, providing a ride to MVA branches and translation services.
The services are legal. But motor vehicle officials emphasized that no one has to pay for them. And they said in a growing number of cases the brokers cater to drivers who should not be getting licenses.
Victor Torrez Gonzalez, 47, gave the MVA a Laurel address when he applied for a license in August, presenting a receipt for postage stamps as proof. But the examiner noticed a familiar name on the document: Carla Garcia, who had submitted four separate Maryland mailing addresses and was on a list of suspicious names. Gonzalez first said the couple lived together, then admitted she was helping him get a license. His real address was in Clifton, N.J. He told a Harford County judge he needed a license for work, records show. He spent 15 days in the Harford jail.
Maryland also prosecuted 507 immigrants last year for supplying false foreign licenses or other identity documents.
The 18 document examiners who vet the authenticity of foreign documents use special machines to inspect them and compare them to reference manuals. But they can not check them against foreign records.
In addition, the U.S. attorney's office has prosecuted members of numerous bribery rings that worked out of the MVA, including Valentin Millstein, the owner of a Silver Spring driving school convicted of scheming with an employee and former employee at the Beltsville branch. They issued more than 100 fraudulent licenses and identification cards to drivers, some illegal immigrants, who paid $2,000 each.
However, Kimberly Propeack of the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland, noted that bribery still goes on in states where illegal immigrants can't get licenses. And she said that whatever residency fraud Maryland might prevent by tightening its rules would be outweighed by a rise in internal corruption and document mills.
"The more difficult it is to obtain [a license] legally, the harder people are going to struggle to obtain it fraudulently," Propeack said.