Two years after the District began issuing driving permits to all residents, regardless of immigration status, activists say the city is making it too difficult for those who are undocumented to obtain the special license.
The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles requires applicants for the city’s “limited purpose” license to schedule an appointment online, making them wait up to six months just to take the written test. City residents who are in the county legally can simply show up at the DMV office, wait in line and go through the usual process of getting a license.
For many applicants it’s impossible to keep the appointments or provide the required documentation on the first try, and when they reschedule they have to wait another four to six months to try again, said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, a group that assists immigrant families in the District.
“Why are they making this a harder process than it needs to be?” he said. “When the city authorized this it created a mechanism for members of the undocumented community to integrate into the city and now it is making it difficult for them to do that.”
The limited purpose license— which does not require proof of a social security number — can be obtained with a foreign passport or consular card as proof of identification. It cannot be used as identification to travel or to enter federal buildings.
Nuñez and other immigrant and civil liberties groups presented their concerns Tuesday at a D.C. Council hearing on the proposed fiscal 2017 budget for the DMV. They urged the Council’s transportation committee to press the agency to drop the appointment system, but DMV Director Lucinda Babers said her agency isn’t prepared to handle more walk-ins.
Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the committee, however, urged Babers to come up with a solution because the current system, Cheh said, isn’t working.
The DMV has issued nearly 4,000 “limited purpose” licenses since the program launched in May 2014. But as many as 19,000 other city residents qualify to apply for the document. Babers said about 6,000 people currently have appointments.
“I don’t believe that we have reached the point yet where we have serviced the masses of those individuals who are trying to get a limited purpose credential such that we can eliminate the appointment system at this point,” Babers said.
Other states that offer licenses to undocumented immigrants, such as California, added new facilities and resources to deal with the increased demand for services, Babers said, while the District is taking on the extra load with the same resources. A new facility to issue the licenses would cost about $2.4 million, she said.
“We understand the backlog. We do not want the backlog. We are attempting to address the backlog,” she said, but emphasized that the agency has to rely on the appointment system.
A report by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Justice found that many of the applicants, who tend to hold low-wage jobs, are unable to keep their appointment because of job responsibilities. If they do make it and don’t have all the documents needed, they are forced to book another one and wait another four to six months to return.
If an applicant fails the knowledge exam, they are not allowed to retake it within days like regular applicants. This process, activists say, discourages them from seeking documentation to legally drive in the city. It also adds another obstacle to becoming licensed to drive for a group that has a higher rate of failure in passing the test due to low levels of education and limited English skills.
This essentially creates “a separate but not equal system,” said Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital. Applicants who are not computer savvy are also challenged with having to book their appointment online, she said.
Ofelio Crespo said it took him nearly two years, and at least six visits to a DMV office to get his license.On his first visit, he said, he didn’t have all the proof of residency he needed. The second appointment was scheduled for six months later, when he again was told he didn’t have all the necessary documentation. When he finally met all the requirements on his the third visit, he failed the written test. Then failed again. And again. He got his license two weeks ago.
With his limited English skills, Crespo said it was difficult to book the appointment online and even harder to navigate the DMV office where he wasn’t offered assistance in his native Spanish.
A D.C. resident for more than a decade, Crespo makes a living catering homemade tamales for big events. Throughout the two-year wait, he continued to drive without a license.
“I had obligations. I needed to drive for work and to take care of my family,” he said in Spanish. But all along, he said, he feared for the worse.
“It is not easy to live without documents, and always in fear. I felt like a huge weight came off my shoulders when I finally got the license,” he said. “It’s a big relief.”
Ten states, in addition to the District of Columbia, have issued driving privileges to undocumented immigrants. At least five don’t have an appointment system, Hopkins-Maxwell said. Maryland has an appointment system but it also has 250,000 potential applicants, activists say.
“It is an issue of equity,” Nuñez said. “We see the clients here and it takes them two years to get a driver’s license. It’s ridiculous.”
Babers said the biggest problem isn’t the appointment system, but helping the applicants prepare to pass the exam. Currently the failure rate for those seeking a limited purpose license is 73 percent, she said. The agency is working with some community groups to assist with test preparation.
But activists blame the DMV for making the process more difficult for non-English speakers. CARECEN has filed seven complaints with the Office of Human Rights claiming that the DMV fails to make services available to non-English speakers in their native language as required by city law, and particularly of the lack of bilingual employees who can administer the driving tests.
Babers acknowledged that the DMV doesn’t have a bilingual test administrator. She said the agency is working to train employees to make better use of a language line that is available to city employees. She also said the agency is taking disciplinary action against employees who are intentionally not using it. Though the agency doesn’t allow interpreters on driving tests, she said it is willing to try out a system that would allow the testing official to use an interpreter via a cell phone. She provided no timetable for when such a program might go into effect.