Virginia rejects work permit cards as proof of legal status to get license or ID

As sisters of the Benedictine order gather in Bristow, Va., for a five-day retreat, a crash blamed on drunken driving kills one nun and critically injures two others, adding gravity and emotion to the event.
By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Virginia said Tuesday that federal work permit cards can no longer be used to prove someone's legal status when obtaining driver's licenses or identification cards in the state after a fatal crash involving a Benedictine nun and a Bolivian man, accused of drunk driving, who immigrated here illegally.

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles changed its policy to remove the federal government's I-766 permit from the list of documents that can be used to demonstrate "proof of legal presence." Melanie Stokes, a spokeswoman for the department, called the Aug. 1 death of Sister Denise Mosier, 66, the "catalyst" for the change. Carlos A. Martinelly-Montano, 23, is accused of swerving into the path of a vehicle carrying Mosier and two other nuns on their way to a retreat in Prince William County.

Martinelly-Montano, who had entered the United States illegally at age 8 with his parents, had been awaiting a deportation hearing after convictions for drunken driving in 2007 and 2008. In January 2009, he received a federal employment authorization card from the Department of Homeland Security and used it to obtain a Virginia ID card. Martinelly-Montano, who has been indicted on involuntary manslaughter and drunken driving charges in connection with the accident, did not have a valid driver's license at the time of the crash.

"We must ensure that documents accepted as proof of legal presence are reliable," Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said. Twenty of the 21 documents accepted as proof of legal status are issued by the federal government, including 12 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The DMV change, which was first urged by Prince William County law enforcement officials after the accident, is Virginia's first attempt to distance itself from federal policies that allow the cards to be issued to illegal immigrants in the midst of deportation proceedings. Immigrant advocacy groups decried the move as a political overreaction.

"From a legal point of view, it's just plain stupid," said Crystal L. Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "There are so many people who are here legally, and that's the only documentation they are able to produce."

The cards were introduced in 1997 as a way to identify those who are authorized to work temporarily in the United States. Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said the state's attorney general has been asked to review all of the documents allowed by DMV locations to "make sure we're following the law on our end."

Virginia was also the first state to try to increase the security of driver's licenses after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; several of the hijackers had used driver's licenses issued to them by the commonwealth as proof of identification at airports and flight schools.

Maryland accepts the employment card to establish lawful status. The District does not have a "legal presence" requirement. In Virginia, the permits can still be used to establish proof of identity.

Prince William County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said Tuesday that he was "pleased" by the DMV's action. The issuance of employment cards during active deportation cases sends a "mixed signal," Deane said.

Matt Chandler, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said officials are investigating what prompted Martinelly-Montano's release from federal custody after his second drunken driving arrest but would not comment on Virginia's decision.

Prince William County Board Chairman Corey Stewart said that he was "ecstatic that some good has come from this tragedy and that this has shone a light on the Obama administration's policy to release criminal illegal aliens back into our community." Stewart, the chief architect of a county policy adopted in 2007 that requires police officers to check the immigration status of anyone arrested on suspicion of violating a state or local law, has called on Virginia legislators to pass legislation that enhances law enforcement powers to capture, detain and deport illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, figures from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement show the removal pace of immigrants who have committed crimes in fiscal year 2010 is 60 percent higher than in the last year of the Bush administration, according to TRAC, a Syracuse University research institute.

The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia and Mothers Against Drunk Driving have resisted efforts to politicize the accident.

"We want to stay with the facts. This was caused by drunk driving," said Sister Andrea Verchuck of the Benedictine Sisters, which are headquartered in Bristow. The two other nuns injured in the accident are hospitalized but are listed in stable condition, Prince William officials said.

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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