Almost every day, Lourdes Valdesuso sees them -- refugees who speak only Spanish streaming into her community center office in Silver Spring. They're looking for jobs or have just found them, often as handymen, janitors or kitchen helpers, usually on late-night shifts.
But often there's a hitch. The refugees need transportation to and from work in the sprawling suburbs, but in Maryland they cannot get a driver's license. The state gives the written driver's test only in English.
As a result, scores of Hispanics from Montgomery County are going to the District, where the test is administered in Spanish, and giving false D.C. addresses to obtain licenses illegally, according to Valdesuso and county Hispanic leader Javier Miyares. Others are driving without any license at all.
"It is thoroughly unfair," says Milyares, who is working with county police to press Maryland into changing this policy. "Transportation is often vital to getting a job, and a job is vital to survival."
Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration chief William Bricker said last week that when the tests were administered in Spanish -- a policy halted less than a year ago -- he received complaints from police officers who said Hispanics were unable to communicate with them when arrested for traffic violations.
Bricker also said drivers unable to speak English had used the inability to understand the charges against them as a defense when appearing in court for such serious violations as drunken driving.
But Montgomery County Police Chief Bernard Crooke said his department provides Spanish-speaking officers to assist patrolmen when they are unable to communicate with drivers stopped for violations. "And I don't think the problem is of such magnitude that we should deprive a substantial number of our citizens of the right to drive," said Crooke, who is working to get the state to change its policy.
Robert Thompson, assistant director of the District's Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, said he is aware that nonresidents do obtain licenses but they go unnoticed because a person need only show a birth certificate and Social Security card to obtain a D.C. driver's permit. No proof of address is required.
Indeed, it it not illegal to hold a D.C. driver's permit even for a person who does not reside here. But such permits, often obtained by cab drivers who live in the suburbs, restrict one's driving to inside the District. The driver must also hold a permit from his state of residence.
Bricker said last week that after discussions with officials from other states, which offer the tests in various languages, and police officials, he no longer has a problem with changing the state policy.
He said he is looking into ways to formulate a Spanish test and have it programmed into the state's new computer sytem, on which the tests are given.Bricker said his department applied for a $5,000 federal grant to finance the project, but was turned down. Now, he says, he is attempting to get the current test translated at no charge and then find about $2,500 in the department budget to have it computer programmed.
"But if we do it for one (language) we'll have to do it for others," said Bricker. "It could create a problem." Until Maryland puts its written tests on a computer system about a year ago, the test had been offered in several other languages including Spanish and Vietnamese, Bricker said.