MVA sued over licensing barriers

Agency accused of imposing illegal burdens on immigrants seeking driver's licenses

Baltimore & Region


A statewide immigrant advocacy group filed a lawsuit yesterday against the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, charging it with creating illegal barriers to immigrants trying to obtain driver's licenses.

The lawsuit - filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court on behalf of 13 immigrants - contends that the agency's actions violate state and federal laws.

Immigrants and members of CASA of Maryland held up signs and chanted alternately in English and Spanish while announcing the suit against the MVA, the state Department of Transportation and its top officials.

The "lawlessness" of the MVA, said Steven Smitson, legal director of CASA, at a news conference in front of the MVA's Glen Burnie headquarters, "has caused serious economic harm to the Latino and immigrant community."

MVA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit without being presented with a copy of it, but a spokesman defended many of the policies attacked at the news conference.

"Our requirements for licensing any individual is basically the same," said Buel Young. "We require proof of identity, proof of age and proof of Maryland residency for any individual. The difference is if you are an American citizen, you have a birth certificate" and other documents.

"For someone that's an immigrant, they present a myriad of documents ... and we have to determine the authenticity of these documents. That can require some time," Young said.

Maryland is currently one of 10 states that allows foreign-born residents - regardless of their immigration status - to receive driver's licenses. But CASA officials accuse the MVA of failing to follow its own policies by routinely and unlawfully denying immigrants driver's licenses and permits.

The lawsuit contends that the MVA treats immigrants differently by creating a cumbersome process that requires them to schedule appointments to apply for licenses and limits the offices they can go to, causing them sometimes to wait months and travel long distances.

Smitson referred to "horror stories" that have emerged from driver's license education forums CASA has held with more than 15,000 immigrants across the state, including:

Immigrants who have had to wait months for MVA appointments.

Appointments at which no interpreters were available.

Documents proving residency and identification that were unfairly rejected.

MVA employees who have called federal immigration officials.

The common thread in all the stories, Smitson said, is that they ended with an immigrant being denied a driver's license, with no recourse for an appeal.

Two of the lawsuit's plaintiffs spoke at the news conference.

Margaret Mengly Peredo Echalar, a 23-year-old Laurel resident, said she moved to the United States 3 1/2 years ago from Bolivia to go to college and get a good job. But her inability to get a driver's license made it too difficult to travel. "I lost the best job and I can't go to school," said Echalar.

Echalar said that after repeatedly going to different MVA offices, she was denied a learner's permit and accused of identification fraud because the name she was going to use did not exactly match the one on her passport.

She said employees called immigration officials. Young said the MVA does not call immigration officials unless the equipment to determine the authenticity of foreign documents is broken.

Echalar had to quit a secretarial job in Washington and now works at a restaurant. She is unable to start school at Howard Community College, where she hopes to study psychology.

CASA officials noted that the issue affects legal and undocumented immigrants alike.

Jose V. Hernandez Araujo, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is a green card holder who came to the United States from El Salvador 18 years ago.

Speaking in Spanish at the news conference, Araujo said he held a New York driver's license. But when he moved to Maryland and went to the MVA, his proof of residency was rejected and both his New York license and Maryland identification cards were confiscated.

"So here I am now. And I don't have my New York license, and I don't have my ID card, and I'm just waiting," Araujo said. "I think there are many others like me."

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