By Lisa Rein and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 29, 2009
Thousands of illegal immigrants in Maryland have been scrambling in recent weeks in last-ditch attempts to get driver's licenses before a law curtailing their privileges takes effect Monday. But for many, the effort will have been a waste of time, caused by confusion and conflicting interpretations over how the new rules work.
When the window shuts at the close of business today, they will discover that learner's permits and state-issued identification cards they obtained can't be converted to licenses, as they thought.
"There's no question there's mass confusion," said Kim Propeack of CASA of Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group.
For years, Maryland allowed undocumented immigrants to drive, but the system made the state vulnerable to fraud by out-of-state motorists. After rancorous debate, state legislators this year changed the rules to comply with the federal security law known as Real ID. As of Monday, license applicants will have to prove that they are in the country legally. Illegal immigrants already carrying licenses can keep them until 2015, after one renewal.
Because of late-night changes to the bill on the final day of the legislative session, learner's permits and identification cards issued to illegal immigrants after April 19 can't be converted into full licenses, and licenses issued to them after that date can't be renewed. But under a ruling by motor vehicle officials Wednesday, thousands who obtained ID cards before April 19 will be able to use them to get licenses, a provision some lawmakers call an unforeseen loophole.
It took weeks for state officials and perplexed lawmakers to sort out what some of the changes meant, and they spread some mistaken information to advocacy groups, which in turn passed it along to immigrants. Many who managed to secure appointments for licenses this month thought they could eventually obtain a license if they beat the June 1 cutoff by getting a learner's permit.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario (D-Prince George's County), an advocate for immigrants who served on the bill conference panel, called the situation "an absolute mess" and predicted that the legal interpretation "may have to be decided by a court."
Meanwhile, immigrants have been crowding into motor vehicle agency offices and calling lawmakers and advocates for help. Spurred by advertisements on Spanish language television and radio, thousands spent the past six weeks trying to secure licenses.
Some were likely the victims of scam artists, telling The Washington Post they paid hundreds of dollars or more to agencies promising to arrange appointments. Others traveled far from their homes to various motor vehicle branches scattered across the state, hoping to land walk-in appointments.
Outside the Beltsville branch this month, Omar Berrillos, a 22-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras, kicked at the curb, feeling the pressure of fleeting opportunity. He had taken the written portion of the test over and over, he said, but Berrillos, a construction worker who left school in third grade to pick coffee and bananas in rural Honduras, said the test simply moved too fast for him.
"I always run out of time," he said. "I only have a few more days."
Others, such as 24-year-old David Marquez, an immigrant from El Salvador, were coming to terms with the reality of a learner's permit that would never become a license. On Wednesday, three days before the deadline, Marquez passed the written exam -- on his fifth try. "I'm not happy, but I'm not disappointed, either," he said. Still, with so much uncertainty, Marquez said he wasn't planning to get a car. "At least I'll be able to drive if someone at my church needs me to," he said.
Behind the counter at the busy Beltsville branch, Caesar Correira has felt the heat as he raced to sort through foreign licenses, utility bills and bank statements with the deadline looming. Many immigrants were missing documents, and there was no time to schedule follow-up appointments.
"They are desperate," said Correira, a document examiner. "I have to tell them it's out of my hands."
Among those whose licenses he processed were dozens of special requests from state lawmakers, some of whom have been overwhelmed with e-mails, calls and visits.
Del. Victor Ramirez's law office in a Hyattsville strip mall in his Prince George's district has been flooded with visits and requests for help. Ramirez said he has done everything he can to get people through the system. Some unnecessarily paid a woman named Liliana just for a referral to him, he said.
"You feel for people," he said. "We have asked the MVA to accommodate them. We want people to have licenses for public-safety reasons."
Ramirez and his colleagues and advocates have urged anyone who failed the written driving test to get an identification card instead and convert it later. But it turns out that ID cards issued after April 19 will expire.
Late Wednesday, the fate of identification cards issued before April 19 finally was decided: They can be converted to licenses after Monday, MVA Administrator John T. Kuo said.
This, like so many other details of the new law, has surprised and disappointed some lawmakers.
"It's a big loophole, and it wasn't what we intended," said Del. Ronald A. George (R-Anne Arundel), who opposed allowing any illegal immigrant to keep a license. "The bill was sloppily written." He pledged to try to change the law when he returns to Annapolis in January.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), an advocate for immigrants, was also critical of the uncertainty.
"You don't play around with people's lives this way," she said.
Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Acton, who interpreted the law, acknowledged the confusion.
"We have to live with and enforce the law as it came to us," Acton said. "But with every retelling, the meaning can be misunderstood."