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.

Critics argue that giving undocumented immigrants licenses enables them to live in the United States more easily and will encourage more to come here illegally.

"Giving them a license is a tacit legitimization of their presence here," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration controls.

Advocates counter that the undocumented will drive if that's the only way they can get to work or other places they need to go. Giving illegal immigrants licenses or permits makes them more likely to insure their vehicles and allows the government to keep better track of them, they say.

"They have kids who need to get to school or who need to get to the doctor. They need to buy groceries," said Joan Friedland, managing attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "People would prefer to have licenses and get insurance."

Adrian, a 45-year-old carpenter from El Salvador who lives in Gaithersburg, said his heart pounds every time he gets behind the wheel. He drives only when he has no other way to get to a job.

"Every time I get in the car, I think of my family," he said. In El Salvador, he supports a wife and four children, whom he hasn't seen in seven years. "If the police arrest me, then who will look out for them?"

For now, Adrian's car, a Toyota Camry, is insured through his son, 24, who got a Maryland license before the law changed. But that license, like those of illegal immigrants in other states that have ceased to grant them, will one day expire and will not be renewable.

"Statistics are hard to come up with because you're getting more and more people who had driver's licenses in the past, and now they're expiring," said Marty Rosenbluth, staff attorney with Southern Coalition for Social Justice. As the licenses expire, immigration experts predict, more drivers will join the ranks of the unlicensed.

Adrian said about half of his friends drive without licenses. Ten who were caught doing so are in deportation proceedings and wear ankle-bracelet monitors.

But getting stopped and found to be driving without a license doesn't always lead to deportation, said Kraig Troxell, a spokesman for the sheriff's office in Loudoun County, which, like Prince William's, trains its police officers to identify and detain illegal immigrants. If drivers can identify themselves and have no criminal record or other reason police are seeking them, he said, offenders are often issued summonses and sent on their way.

Prince William also gives officers discretion to issue a warning or a summons, said Sgt. Kim Chinn, a police spokeswoman, adding that even when the police stop illegal immigrants who have no licenses, they generally are not taken into custody if they can prove their identity.

Part of the reason may be because ICE is unequipped to deal with the increasing number of illegal immigrants driving without licenses. The agency has said it is concentrating on the pursuit and deportation of those with more serious criminal backgrounds.

But fear of deportation prompted Feliz Ayala, 53, a Honduran living in Gaithersburg, to stop driving without a license after only two days.

"Every time I saw a police car," he said, "I thought he was coming for me."

Adrian said he hates breaking the law. And if he is caught, he has no question of what would happen. "They would deport me," he said.

And then what? Would he return to the United States? He paused. "Maybe not. Because the laws are worse now."

Yet they are not bad enough to deter Carlos, 43, who has spent the past year using public transportation or relying on friends to ferry him from his Gaithersburg home to jobs in the region. Without driving, however, he has not been able to earn enough money to support his wife and four children in Mexico.

So he has made a decision. With the help of a friend who is legal, he is going to buy a car. His friend will get the plates and insurance, and Carlos will pay for it.

"I'm scared," he said, "but I'm going to do it."

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