A Virginia driver's license should fulfill four essential functions, according to Del. James "Jay" O'Brien (R-40). It proves the driver's competence, it serves as identification, it is a proof of residence in Virginia and it is proof of legal presence.
"We should make our process as easy as possible to those who have federal permission to be here," he said.
BUT MARIA INES AGUILAR, a Salvadoran woman living legally in Arlington, had no idea getting a driver’s license could be so complicated. After visiting both the Four Mile Run and the Franconia offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles, she found that she needed to show not only her social security card but also her employment authorization card, a bill with her address, her bank balance and her passport from El Salvador.
Despite all that, she said, she still has not received her license.
“They told me that what I had here was invalid,” she said, brandishing all her documents.
“They didn’t even look at what I had there.”
Aguilar’s experience is far from unique, according to Teresa Martinez, the legislative chair of the Virginia Hispanic Bar Association.
The DMV, she said, is “requiring extra documentation based on skin color and how they speak.”
“They’re basically making it hard for Latinos to get driver’s licenses regardless of your legal status.”
"We have been made aware of customers experiencing difficulty providing identity," said Pam Goheen, a DMV spokesperson. She added that the agency's policy was to meet with the customers or with representatives from affected groups.
AGUILAR WAS ONE of several dozen members of the Latino community who testified in front of a DMV public hearing Sept. 20 at the Fairfax County Government Center on proposed reforms to the process of issuing driver’s licenses.
Virginia law-makers asked the DMV this year to study the feasibility and potential impacts of three changes and to report back to the Assembly at the next session. Last year, Virginia’s DMV made headlines for issuing licenses to seven of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
The first change concerns Virginia residency. The proposed reform would give the DMV the power to make changes to the list of acceptable documents to establish residency in Virginia. To add or remove documents from the list today requires a process of public hearings that can take up to 18 months.
“We would like to have the flexibility to modify the list if necessary,” said Goheen.
The second change would call on the DMV to collect personal information of its customers, such as fingerprints or iris scans. This information, the so-called “biometric identifiers,” would then be stored by the agency.
The third change would deny driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Advocates for the Latino community said denying undocumented workers access to a driver’s license would force many of them to drive illegally in order to get to work, which would make roads less safe.
“Attempt to limit Virginia driver’s licenses only to those who can prove they are legally present in the United States are misguided, dangerous and not in the best interests of Virginia or her residents,” said Tim Freilich, the managing attorney of the Virginia Justice Center, one of the groups in an ad-hoc coalition called the Virginia Coalition for Fair Access to Licenses.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated in 1996 that as many as 55,000 illegal immigrants were living in Virginia.
“LINKING A DRIVER’S license to status or legal presence is putting the DMV’s mission at risk,” said state Sen. Leslie Byrne (D-34) during the public hearing. “I think it is abundantly clear that [the DMV] is not in the business of determining immigration policy or legal status.”
Byrne also said that she did not like the idea of giving the DMV the authority to make changes to the list of acceptable documents without proper public oversight.
“I would err on the public’s right to know,” she said.
But she declared herself in favor of letting the DMV collect finger prints or iris scans or other biometric identifiers.
“As people get more and more used to biometrics they’re not going to find it that intrusive,” she said. “In this day and age people are willing to have more intrusion.”
Byrne authored the Senate bill commissioning the DMV’s study. But her bill did not include the legal status requirement. That provision was added by O’Brien in the House version of the bill.
O’BRIEN SAID the reforms were necessary after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“DMV’s mission has changed from customer service to security just as it has at the airports,” he said.
He noted that under the current practice, immigrants sometimes receive licenses that expire after their visa does.
“We are in a way extending their permission to be here by virtue of our license that expires three years after their visas,” he said.
O’Brien added that he was in favor of a national identification card for immigrants but not for American citizens.
“The federal government should be issuing a national ID card [for immigrants] with biometrics that every state in the union can use,” he said.
He called the reforms “a major component of homeland security.” A loophole that allowed the DMV to mail Virginia driver’s licenses to people living outside the state has already been closed, he said.
But it is unclear whether the proposed reforms would have prevented the Sept. 11 hijackers from getting licenses. Nevertheless, O’Brien said the changes were “part of the fabric of security.”
But Latino advocates said the changes would not be effective against terrorism but would harm immigrants and refugees.
Without a driver’s license, immigrants would not only be unable to drive legally, they would also have no way to withdraw money from their bank accounts, said Dumfries resident Alvaro Esparza at the hearing. Bank tellers usually ask for two pieces of identification and without a driver’s license, many immigrants would not be able to show two identification cards, he said.
“The need that Latinos have to have a driver’s license or an identification card is absolute because in this country you need I.D. for absolutely everything,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have to pay for what other people have done,” he added, referring to the terrorist attacks.
“The Sept. 11 attacks are not our fault,” she said.