Thirteen foreign-born residents of Maryland filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that the state's Motor Vehicle Administration routinely and improperly denies driver's licenses to immigrants.
Unlike laws in Virginia and several other states, Maryland's code does not prohibit illegal immigrants from obtaining a license. Attempts by several legislators to pass such a prohibition have repeatedly failed -- with many Maryland lawmakers arguing that most illegal immigrants are otherwise law-abiding and that the roads are safer if they are required to pass a driving test.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they believe the MVA's informal procedures are designed to bar illegal immigrants, excluding many legal immigrants in the process as well.
"There have been pretty high-level leaders in the MVA who just don't believe that illegal immigrants belong in Maryland," said Kimberly Propeack, an advocacy director with the immigrant rights group CASA de Maryland, which is representing the plaintiffs. She argues that illegal immigrants fill vital jobs that U.S. citizens don't want.
"And I also think the process of having to look at foreign documents [as proof of identity] just seems messy to them and they'd just prefer not to deal with that," Propeack said of MVA examiners.
The suit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court and announced to the media at a rally in front of the MVA's headquarters in Glen Burnie, takes particular issue with a requirement that foreign-born applicants make an appointment with a specially trained document examiner at one of eight offices across the state.
U.S.-born applicants can walk into any of the MVA's 18 offices and apply for a license without an appointment.
Buel Young, a spokesman for the MVA, said the agency adopted the system in September 2003 because of the challenges involved in verifying the authenticity of the foreign documents, such as passports and birth certificates issued by foreign governments.
"You can imagine that we get documents from all over the world," he said. "We felt that instead of having someone occupy a counter for potentially hours as opposed to the minutes necessary to process a run-of-the-mill application, this would be a better way."
Eliza Leighton, another CASA attorney, said a foreign-born applicant often has to wait weeks or months for an appointment that may be hours from his or her home.
"That's unequal treatment," she said. "That's not the due process required under the Maryland constitution."
The lawsuit alleges that many immigrants are turned down because of informal rules far more restrictive than those spelled out in state law and regulations.
For instance, Ana Lucila Gutierrez, 36, who moved from Panama to Laurel 10 months ago, alleges in the suit that an MVA examiner in Waldorf refused to accept her rental contract as proof that she lived in Maryland because her landlord lives in the same house -- a common arrangement in immigrant communities.
Gutierrez's husband, Eduardo Enrique Miranda Martinez, said examiners at the same office refused to accept his Panamanian driver's license even though it was accompanied by a translation from the Panamanian consulate.
State law states only that a foreign driver's license must come with a certified translation.
"The examiner said the translation had to come directly from the department of transportation in Panama," said Martinez, an auto mechanic. "It's very hard because the companies I want to work for won't hire me if I don't have a license. And I can't drive my kids to school -- can't even drive them to the doctor if they're sick. I worry a lot about it."
The lawsuit also alleges that the MVA regularly turns downs applicants who present passports without a current visa stamp -- even though state law does not require such stamps.
Similarly, the plaintiffs say, the MVA routinely refuses to consider school records if they encompass fewer than three years of study, and driver's licenses from other states if not accompanied by driving records -- even though neither restriction is specified under the law.
Young declined to comment on the lawsuit until MVA officials had time to review it.
However, he said the agency "follows the statute and regulations" and added that "the MVA has had an ongoing dialogue with CASA and legislators and various representatives of the Hispanic community" on the issues.
But Leighton said she had lost patience after six months of negotiating with MVA officials. "It was too time-consuming, and it was doing nothing to force the agency to enforce its own laws," she said.