For three days straight, Sister Agnes Oman tried to get through to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration phone line to make driver's license appointments for her immigrant clients.
She would begin at 8:27 a.m., just before the appointment line opens at 8:30 a.m. And she kept calling. One recent Wednesday, she dialed 60 times. Always busy. Thursday, 220 times. Nothing. And Friday, she called 120 times. No answer.
"I'm starting to get frustrated," said Oman, associate director for the Hispanic ministry of the Diocese of Wilmington, which serves the Eastern Shore. "It's not fair. Americans don't have to do this. They just walk into the MVA."
Three months since advocates like Oman began urging the Maryland MVA to upgrade its services to foreign nationals, agency officials admit they have made only a modest dent at relieving scheduling headaches and say they are struggling to keep pace with growing demand.
Maryland is one of nine states that issue driver's licenses and identification cards to foreign-born state residents, regardless of their immigration status.
In 2003, the MVA initiated a separate process for foreign nationals, and since September 2006 it has required in-person appointments at one of its 10 offices to review the authenticity of documents. Officials say such meetings are necessary to prevent fraud, which is on the rise along with requests for licenses.
MVA Administrator John T. Kuo said the agency has tried to strike a balance between customer service and security. In July, the MVA spent nearly $500,000 on a call center in Gaithersburg staffed with eight employees fluent in English and Spanish. The agency is capable of scheduling 2,000 appointments per week on a rolling basis, yet with tens of thousands of phone calls a day, slots are quickly booked.
"The changes have helped somewhat, but the call volume remains high," said Kuo, "which is why we are trying to engage in outreach to the communities to help people understand the process."
Kuo said the MVA is hesitant to drastically alter its services to foreign nationals because of a costly federal mandate taking effect in May. The legislation, known as the Real ID Act, says states must implement new federal standards for issuing the identification cards, in effect preventing illegal immigrants from obtaining them.
"We don't want to expend lots of resources, which we don't have, to make changes to our programs and systems if we are going to have to change it all over again because of Real ID," Kuo said.
Nevertheless, license seekers and their advocates say the MVA's wait-and-see approach has created a frustrating and inferior procedure for foreigners.
"There is this double system that is in place," said Jessica Contreras, chairwoman of the Latino Provider's Network, an organization of Baltimore social service providers. "These people should have equal access like everybody else. ... Some people believe that they have set up this system on purpose to make it difficult, so that fewer people will actually seek driver's licenses."
These days, applicants are still waiting months to schedule appointments. Once they get inside the MVA service centers, they complain about confusing documentation requirements and inadequate translation services.
As a result, immigrant would-be drivers are being exploited by opportunists offering to navigate the system for them, charging as much as $100 to try to schedule an appointment, say advocates.
Kuo has met with advocates, urging them to tell constituents to report scams to the MVA hot line.
"It's a form of discrimination," Oman said of people who charge for phone calls. She said she has offered to make calls for some 26 clients whose work schedules are so hectic that they cannot get to a phone during the day.
Maryland's system is unusual, said Tyler Moran, employment policy director for the National Immigration Law Center. The eight other states that issue driver's licenses to foreign nationals do not operate separate services for the population, she said.
"If you are going to train an MVA official to read a birth certificate from California, can't you teach them to read a foreign passport?" Moran said. "There really should be no special process you have to go through because someone is foreign-born."
Kuo said the MVA is up against various obstacles, including applicants so desperate for licenses that they book multiple slots and don't show up for scheduled appointments.
In August, the MVA launched a cancellation e-mail address and phone line after advocates complained that, if people can barely get through to make an appointment, they can hardly cancel one.
Combating fraud is an even greater concern, Kuo said. From January through May, the MVA investigated 300 cases of people using phony documents to obtain licenses, compared with 459 cases in 2006, he said. At this pace, the MVA expects to record more than 700 incidents by the end of this year.