A new Virginia law making it a crime to cheat on a driver's license exam was passed to deal with an epidemic of cribbing, according to state officials, but advocates for immigrants fear it most often will be used against people who do not speak English.

Both people arrested so far do not speak English -- an Arlington man fined $250 Friday and a Washington woman arrested in Alexandria, scheduled to go on trial Aug. 31.

"For immigrants, a driver's license is vitally important as a form of ID to cash checks or to put money in the bank," said Tsehaye Teferra, of the Ethiopian Community Development Council.

"And it's usually the main basis for employment," particularly, he said, for jobs as drivers or for immigrants who need a license to travel to the site of construction or cleaning jobs.

People who don't speak English may be tempted to cheat because they are at a disadvantage in studying for the driver's exam, leaders of Northern Virginia's immigrant communities say. Although the driver's test is administered in English, Spanish and Vietnamese throughout the state, a booklet widely used as a study guide for the test is available only in English.

"If you have to study for the test and you don't have the manual in Spanish, how are you going to study for it?" asked Emma Hainer, a member of the Arlington-based Virginia Immigrants Rights Task Force.

"I think {the Department of Motor Vehicles} is creating an unnecessary barrier for non-English speakers who need to pass that exam to get work." At the motor vehicle office on South Glebe Road in Arlington yesterday, dozens of people -- most of them speaking languages other than English -- stood in line for up to two hours to apply for learner's permits or to take the written test.

Although she has been in this country only two months, Tigest Taye, 23, already knows that getting a driver's license is essential to success here.

"Before I start work, I need it," said Taye, a native of Ethiopia, explaining in broken English that she already has failed attempts to pass the test two times. "The first time, it was too hard for me. I hope this time it will be easier."

Motor vehicle officials say they believe Virginia is the only state to impose criminal penalties for cheating on a driver's test.

Before the new law took effect July 1, the department nullified the exam of anyone who cheated on the test.

Now, a person convicted of cheating faces a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail.

An Arlington General District Court Judge fined Elmer Avila of Arlington $250 when he pleaded guilty last week to cheating on the test. Avila was arrested July 31 when a Department of Motor Vehicles employee discovered Avila had written the answers to the exam on his hands.

Mabel Garcia, 36, of Washington, was arrested on Aug. 1 in the department's Alexandria branch after an employee allegedly found her referring to answers she had taped to the bottom of her purse. Her trial is set for Aug. 31 in Alexandria General District Court.

According to Del. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the bill, cheating on driver's exams had reached an epidemic level.

Byrne said her concern is that people who do not know the rules of the road are getting behind the wheel.

"Driving is hard enough in Northern Virginia, without having people who are on the roads who are not properly trained," she said. "I don't think it's illogical that a lot of our accidents could be avoided by people obtaining their licenses honestly."

Byrne said she is sympathetic to the problems of immigrants, but cannot excuse anyone who cheats on the driver's test.

"The Richmond headquarters had not realized what a tremendous problem they had with the growing number of immigrants in this area," Byrne acknowledged. "The immigrants coming into the country need a driver's license to get a job. But DMV's job is to make sure that people who get a driver's license are proficient in that skill."

Some involved in transportation safety applaud the new law.

"We favor it because it keeps the tests honest, so that we have drivers with better records," said Jack Martin, director of public affairs for the Highway Users Federation, a Washington organization supporting highway safety.

But advocates for immigrants say the law is too tough.

"I understand that it's a public safety issue, but jail, for cheating on a test?" said Mina J. Ketchie, an Arlington immigration lawyer. "I think the punishment's a bit inappropriate."

Kim Bolton, a community liaison officer with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Arlington, said the department does not believe the law should hamper anyone who wants a license from getting one. She met with several Hispanic leaders from Northern Virginia in July to discuss the new law, among other issues.

"We do understand that there is a language problem and that some groups may not understand how the process works," Bolton said.

Hassan Odeh is one of those who has faced the language problem. He left the Arlington motor vehicle office dejected yesterday, after hearing that he had failed on his first attempt at the written test.

"I swear, I need it," said Odeh, 22, a Palestinian from Jerusalem. "I manage a grocery store. I have to get merchandise for the store and my family lives far from the store."

Odeh said he was able to study a little for the test, "but there's a lot of stuff in here I just couldn't understand," he said, thumbing through the English language learner's manual he was given by a clerk.