Hirut Bekele had never heard of Carlos Martinelly-Montano, the undocumented Bolivian immigrant charged with killing a nun in a drunken-driving accident in August.
But last month, their worlds collided when Bekele, an Ethiopian woman living in Reston, tried to get her driver’s license renewed in Virginia.
As she had done for years, Bekele, 32, took her work permit, which she is legally allowed to renew each year, to the Department of Motor Vehicles. In previous years, the DMV would issue her a new license based on the work permit. But last month, it said no.
Figuring there was some mistake, Bekele visited multiple DMVs in Centreville and elsewhere in Fairfax to no avail. And that is how she learned that Virginia had stopped issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants who have only work permits — a decision sparked by the arrest of Martinelly-Montano, who had a valid work permit even though he was in deportation proceedings.
When Bekele, a tollbooth operator who worked all over Northern Virginia for a contract company, told her employer she no longer had a valid driver’s license, she got laid off. Bekele said her employer needed her to be able to drive because she had to carry money to and from tollbooths, and it would not be safe to use public transportation. Also, she said, she sometimes had to travel to several tollbooths in a day to relieve other operators.
Bekele, a single parent with a 3-year-old daughter, said she is about a month away from being homeless. She said she cannot understand how the federal government can say she is legally allowed to work in the country while the state of Virginia effectively makes it impossible for her to work.
“I have a work permit from the government,” Bekele said in an interview. One option for her would be to move to the District or Maryland to get a license. Both jurisdictions issue licenses on the basis of valid work permits.
But Bekele said she cannot afford to move because she is heavily dependent on a nonprofit group called Reston Interfaith that helps her with her rent and child care.
“Why should I move?” she demanded. “It’s not my fault.”
Jorge E. Figueredo, director of racial justice and immigrants’ rights at the ACLU of Virginia, said he has come across dozens of recent cases of legal immigrants being denied driver’s licenses in Virginia, and two other cases of immigrants — one from Tunisia and the other from Pakistan — who were denied licenses on identical grounds as Bekele.
“The federal government recognizes me as a legal resident of the U.S.A., but the state of Virginia refused to do so,” said Muhammad Hamza, 48, of Falls Church, who was turned down in October when he tried to use his work permit to renew his driver’s license.
As a result, Hamza, who is from Pakistan, said it had become difficult for him to even get to doctor’s appointments: “The driver’s license is not only a permit for driving but a basic identity in the country,” Hamza said in an e-mail. “Without this ID, I even cannot operate my own bank account.”
Bekele, like Hamza, has a peculiar immigration status known as “withholding from removal.” When Bekele applied for asylum some years ago, she was turned down. That meant she had to be deported. But an immigration judge stayed the deportation, because Bekele presented credible fears that she would be persecuted if she returned to Ethiopia.
Under her “withholding from removal” status, Bekele can legally work in the United States while the federal government tries to find another country besides Ethiopia to accept her. Given that that rarely happens, people in Bekele’s situation end up staying in the country indefinitely.
Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, declined to discuss the specifics of Bekele’s legal status but said, “ICE makes genuine efforts to effectuate removal to third countries in such cases.”
Until that happens, “individuals granted withholding of removal are authorized to be granted employment authorization by the Department of Homeland Security,” he added.
The Virginia DMV has asked people who cannot prove their identity to contact a hotline, but when Bekele called, she was told that her immigration status was listed as “under review” and that she was not eligible for a driver’s license.
Because the federal government is technically required to keep trying to resettle her, said Jason Dzubow, a Washington lawyer who is helping Bekele, “I suppose one could argue that Hirut’s ability to remain in the U.S. is ‘under review’ because DHS can continue to look for a third country to send her to, but I have never heard of DHS removing someone like her to a third country.”
Taylor Thornley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), said she could not comment on Bekele’s case in particular but defended the state’s decision to keep driver’s licenses out of the hands of immigrants who can only provide a work permit — known officially as an employment authorization document.
“We believe that the decision to not accept the I-766 Employment Authorization Document is in the best interest of Virginia’s citizens,” she said in an e-mail. “As Gov. McDonnell has said before, having a driver’s license is a privilege, and we must ensure that documents accepted as proof of legal presence are reliable. It is our hope that the Department of Homeland Security will work with this individual who unfortunately falls into a rare category.”