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Grounding foreign drivers in Virginia, by gubernatorial order

Wednesday, September 15, 2010; A22

WITH THE STROKE of a pen, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has thrown up a roadblock in the path of thousands of law-abiding foreign nationals who seek to obtain a driver's license in the state. He did so despite the fact that they are legally authorized to live and work in Virginia, and in many cases have been for years.

Mr. McDonnell's order disallows federal work permit cards as a basis for securing driver's licenses or ID cards in Virginia, even though they are accepted for that purpose in a majority of states. One group likely to be particularly hurt are the many thousands of Salvadorans in Virginia who have been authorized to work here since the federal government granted them legal status in 2001, following two devastating earthquakes in their native country. The Salvadorans frequently rely on the federal work permits to get driver's licenses; in many cases, they have no other proof of legal presence.

The governor's decision was impelled by the tragic death last month of Sister Denise Mosier, 66, a nun who was killed in an accident involving an illegal immigrant, Carlos A. Martinelly-Montano. Mr. Martinelly-Montano, who had two previous drunk driving convictions, is accused of swerving into the path of a vehicle carrying Sister Denise in Prince William County. Although he was facing deportation proceedings, Mr. Martinelly-Montano was able to obtain a federal work permit card to establish legal residence and apply for a Virginia ID card. He did not have a valid Virginia driver's license at the time of the accident.

Citing that terrible incident, the governor has demonized anyone who relies on the work permit card, which is issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, even though few of the card-holders face deportation proceedings. State officials say that foreign residents of Virginia will still be able to use other documents -- passports, visas, resident alien cards -- to establish their legal presence. And it's true that in most cases a foreigner must first have one of those documents before he can obtain a work permit.

But large numbers of foreigners rely on the work permit card as proof of legal residence, particularly those with limited education or English-language skills. In many cases, immigrants lose or discard secondary documents, thinking that the coveted work card -- complete with infrared ink, microscopic printing, embedded codes, holoscopic overlays and laser markings that make it almost counterfeit-proof -- will suffice. In other cases, those secondary documents may be taken and never returned by immigration attorneys or bogus "lawyers" known as notarios, who prey on unsophisticated foreign residents by arranging credentials for them.

Virginia officials say some 19,000 driver's licenses have been issued in the state on the basis of the federal work permits -- a tiny percentage of the total but hardly a trivial number. Many of the license-holders are Salvadoran nationals in Northern Virginia who are legally authorized to be here. For those license-holders and others like them, Mr. McDonnell's order will have a dramatic and harmful impact on their ability to live, work and drive in the state.

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