Due to an editing error, an article yesterday on problems some foreign-born Maryland residents face in getting a driver's license contained misleading information. It should have said the Motor Vehicle Administration is considering accepting birth certificates from other countries as proof of identification in addition to birth certificates issued in the United States or one of its territories. (Published 10/24/ 90)

Hispanic community activists and residents say that ignorance and what they perceive as racism at Maryland motor vehicle offices often combine to deny foreign-born residents a vital document: a state driver's license.

The problems immigrants face at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, one of the few state agenices that many of them voluntarily come into contact with, have highlighted distrust of government that many bring with them from their home countries, members of the Hispanic community said.

"They want to be under the law," said Sonia Lugo, a Silver Spring insurance agent who has intervened for many Hispanics who were denied licenses.

Members of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs and the Maryland chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens will meet today to discuss the problems with MVA officials and iron out new requirements for proof of identity when applying for a license.

"I think the mission of the {Motor Vehicle Administration} is to regulate traffic laws and to take care of the licensing and regulation of motor vehicles . . . not the enforcement of immigration laws," said William Stagg, president of league's Maryland chapter. "Because they {foreign-born residents} don't have all of the documents that an average American has, they should not be denied a driver's license."

Members of the Hispanic community related these incidents:

When Blanca Gomez went to the MVA office in Gaithersburg this summer to apply for a driver's license, the clerk there sized her up and asked for her green card, or proof of permanent U.S. residency. Because Gomez, who has a valid passport from Guatemala, is still waiting for a green card, the clerk told her she couldn't get a license.

It took Antonio and Blanca Iriarte, who immigrated to Maryland from El Salvador, four months to get their driver's licenses despite showing workers at the Largo MVA office a letter from the state government that proof of U.S. residency is not a requirement.

A Silver Spring man who owns a courier business said he was verbally abused last week by a Gaithersburg MVA worker who told him she would listen only to people who spoke English.

Maj. Philip L. Brown, assistant director of the Division of Driver Licensing and School Vehicle Safety, said the department has held a sensitivity session at the Gaithersburg office and expects to hold more of them throughout the state.

He also said the MVA will propose less stringent regulations for proof of identification. For example, the MVA will no longer require a birth certificate from the United States or one of its territories, and will allow birth certificates from foreign countries as long as the certificates are translated by an embassy official.

"I wouldn't want to say {the regulations} discriminate against anyone," Brown said, but he added they "may have made it more difficult for people who have come from countries without documentation . . . to support their identities."

Currently, Maryland accepts U.S. birth certificates, U.S. passports, certified school records and out-of-state driver's licenses among other proof of identification. The alien registration card or green card is an optional proof of identification.

Some Spanish-speaking people have been denied Maryland licenses even though they had a Virginia or D.C. license or a passport and other identification, Hispanic activists said. In some cases, MVA officials have retained passports if the applicant could not supply additional identification, said Gina B. Santi, assistant director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

The groups are pressuring the MVA to hire more bilingual workers, especially at the Largo and the Gaithersburg offices in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where 60 percent of the state's Hispanic residents live. Largely because of complaints from Hispanic activists, the MVA this summer began installing new software programs that will offer the computerized driver's test in both English and Spanish and eventually in Korean and Polish.

Many who cannot get a license within 30 days, which is a state requirement, lose their insurance, or, like Blanca Gomez, are ticketed by police for driving with out-of-state tags. Gomez got her license in July after showing workers a letter from Brown's office that provided the actual identification needed.