Illegal immigrants risk deportation by driving without licenses

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 5:50 PM

Jesus eased his black Chevy Tahoe through a neighborhood of tidy brick and clapboard houses, postage-stamp lawns and chain-link fences. It was 6 a.m., and Woodbridge was dotted with Hispanic men waiting for carpools.

Sometimes Jesus, 43, a tall, muscular bricklayer from Mexico, gets a ride to work, too, with a brother-in-law who is a U.S. citizen and has a driver's license. But often, like a growing number of illegal immigrants who live in states where they cannot legally obtain a driver's license, he takes a risk: He drives without one, although he knows it could get him deported.

Jesus, who like others in this story did not want his last name used because he fears attracting the attention of immigration authorities, said he obeys the speed limit, signals at every turn, and stops at every stop sign. He also doesn't venture onto the roadways at night.

"Driving in the work hours, you don't have no problems," he said, joining the river of commuters on the Beltway. Portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus Christ hung above his left shoulder. "I just drive and try to drive good," he said, "so the police do not stop me."

About 11 million immigrants live in the United States without authorization, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center. It is impossible to know how many of them drive without licenses, experts say.

Last year in Prince William County, 205 illegal immigrants were charged with driving without licenses - 10 percent of those cited for that offense, police said. And in Frederick County, 31 percent of those arrested for driving without a license - 124 people in all - were referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But most police departments do not keep separate arrest statistics on undocumented immigrants. Nor does ICE track the number of people it deports who were caught driving without licenses.

But it is safe to assume the numbers have soared as more states, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have stopped granting licenses to those who cannot not prove legal presence in the United States or produce Social Security numbers.

In 2002, at least 16 states, including Maryland, issued such licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Now, only New Mexico and Washington state issue licenses without either a Social Security number or proof of legal presence. (Utah also offers year-long "driving privil+ege cards" to thousands of people without Social Security numbers or proof of lawful presence.)

The District requires only a Social Security number. Maryland last year began requiring both proof of lawful presence and a Social Security number. Virginia has required both since 2004.

And last month, Virginia announced it would stop accepting federal work permit cards as proof of legal residence after a drunken-driving accident in Prince William County killed a Benedictine nun and injured two others. The illegal immigrant charged in the crash, Carlos A. Martinelly-Montano, was a twice-convicted drunk driver using a suspended license that he had obtained with a work permit.

Virginia's decision sparked protests outside the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Arlington, but the debate about whether to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants has been heated for years.

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