Mario Flores, a Bolivian native, waited about a half-hour with nearly 40 other Latino immigrants for his turn to speak to a representative of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
The issue, he explained, is a new state law that requires motorists to prove they are in the United States legally to get a driver's license.
He described how friends are turned away from the DMV because they don't have the necessary documents. "What are they supposed to do?" he implored.
Leni Gonzalez, a Northern Virginia outreach coordinator with the DMV, said she was sympathetic. But her answer was firm.
"We understand the dilemma," Gonzalez said. "But this is the law, and it is very strict. There are no exceptions."
Police and state officials say the law, which took effect Jan. 1, has made undocumented immigrants vulnerable to a growing number of scams that prey on their desperation. Many stand to lose their jobs if they can't drive. So they end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars -- often unwittingly -- for fake driver's licenses or traveling to states with less restrictive laws.
State officials announced yesterday that they had invalidated more than 1,000 licenses belonging to people who had bought them illegally from two motor vehicle clerks at the DMV's Tysons Corner branch over the past several years. The clerks were convicted in federal court last year of selling licenses to drivers who could not provide proper paperwork.
Spotsylvania authorities also recently obtained indictments against two people as part of a forgery ring in which false documents were being sold to immigrants needing the papers for valid driver's licenses, according to the commonwealth attorney's office there. Ran Kim, 38, and Yong Nan Lee, 30, both of Annandale, were indicted last month on charges of forgery, said Commonwealth's Attorney William F. Neely. Neely said Kim had provided Lee with forged documents so Lee could drive.
The new law came about when it was learned that seven of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, carried Virginia licenses or identification cards, causing the state to tighten restrictions twice. Virginia now is one of 25 states that mandate that applicants show proof of legal residence before obtaining a driver's license. That proof can be a passport, birth certificate or other document that indicates legal status, said Pam Goheen, the Virginia DMV spokeswoman.
Maryland does not require proof of legal residence but asks immigrants for documents "that lend [themselves] to proving your legal admission to the country," such as a visa or green card, said Buel C. Young, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. However, he said, the Maryland General Assembly established a task force last year to consider other options, including whether to introduce stricter requirements.
In the District, there is no legal presence mandate, but immigrants must show their status with a document such as a Social Security card, along with proof of residency, said Anne Witt, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.
Caught in the middle in Virginia are thousands of undocumented immigrants who have been working in the United States for years, often paying taxes, and who now stand to lose those jobs because they can't drive to work.
"The law has completely changed their lives," said Connie Freeman with Arlington County's Buckingham Community Outreach Center, one of the sponsors of the seminar attended by Flores.
While activists argue that the new law has made it difficult for undocumented residents, state Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said those immigrants already are breaking the law if they are in the country without the proper documents. "They shouldn't be rewarded by getting a Virginia driver's license," said Albo, who sponsored the state's license bill in the House. "A license is a passport to do almost anything."
But without it, immigrants say, they are paralyzed.
"There are many of us with this problem," said one 37-year-old Bolivian immigrant who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was in the United States illegally. "Without an ID, you can't do anything -- you can't find work, you can't open a bank account."
With an estimated 6 million to 8 million undocumented people in the United States, the problem is growing, said Tanya Broder, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
In many immigrant families, parents and children do not have the same legal status, Broder said. That, she said, can potentially prevent parents who can't get a driver's license from taking their legal children to school.
"These are very hard-working, taxpaying workers who have both immigrants and citizens in their families," Broder said.
Scammers have stepped into the vacuum. One undocumented 46-year-old construction worker from Argentina who has been in Virginia for three years said he paid $280 for an international driver's permit at a travel agency in Arlington after the clerk there told him it would serve as a valid license.
Later, "people told me it's not even worth five dollars," he said. "I wasted my money."
The U.S. Department of State has authorized only the American Automobile Association and the American Automobile Touring Alliance to issue international driver's permits, said Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Shannon said these permits, which cost about $20, are issued in the country of residence and are merely translations of driver's licenses.
"It's a complimentary document," Shannon said. "It does not stand alone and does not replace a U.S. valid state license. They're only used to supplement a valid license when traveling abroad."