Varied Interpretations Snarl Md. Driver's License Law for Illegal Residents

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.

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