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Immigrants and Driver's Licenses
by Chaleampon Ritthichai
A 60-year old licensed asbestos remover who shuttled back and forth to the site of the World Trade Center as part of the cleanup effort, the father of an American born daughter who needs to be driven to the hospital because of her frequent seizures, a Barbadian immigrant who drives a delivery truck for a living -- these are examples of people whose driver licenses were suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
For many undocumented immigrants, obtaining a driver’s license has become an almost impossible task ever since the department began a crackdown on giving driver's licenses to non-citizens who cannot provide satisfactory immigration documents. The policy was so controversial that it sparked ongoing litigation between New York State and immigrant groups.
“This is just one of the perils of living and working in this country,” said a Barbadian immigrant. “You never know when you are going to get hit by the authorities, and you are never quite sure where relief is going to come from.”
It all begin last March when the Department of Motor Vehicles began crosschecking drivers’ social security numbers with information at the Social Security Administration and found that some numbers were used more than 50 times. The department then sent out letters to 112,000 New Yorkers asking them to come in and explain why their social security numbers did not match. If they didn't report within 15 days, they risked having their licenses suspended.
Under a 1995 federal law, a Social Security number has been required to obtain a driver's license in New York City but up until last year applicants in New York would have to provide only proof of birth and several forms of identification or utility bills.
The crackdown has resulted in the suspension of the licenses of 7,000 immigrants but advocates said the number of immigrants affected could reach 300,000.
State Motor Vehicles Commissioner Raymond Martinez insisted that the policy is not targeting immigrants but added that the people who used fake immigration documents are subject to arrest and the immigration agency will be notified.
“As a home-owner and a mother of a four year-old child, driving is essential. I am not a terrorist, a deadbeat dad or a criminal,” Allie P told the New York Immigration Coalition. “If this measure was not intended for people like me, then why am I the target?”
Since last year immigrant advocacy groups have tried to raise awareness of the issue by organizing press conferences and protests. They also filed lawsuits against New York State.
One class action lawsuit was filed last summer by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In February the case reached the New York State Supreme Court where Justice Karen S. Smith issued an injunction to halt the department’s crackdown.
Smith argued that the Department of Motor Vehicles is not authorized to enforce immigration law or to make rules without public notice.
“The judge’s order is temporary,” said El Diario editorial. “But we urge the state to abandon this flawed policy permanently.”
Less than a week later, New York State filed an appeal to the court’s order.
Joe Picchi, a spokesman for the department, has said that the appeal automatically cancels the restraining order and that the state will reinstate the requirement.
“It’s very frustrating,” Cesar A. Perales, the president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the New York Times. “ I think it’s clear that they’re trying to avoid complying with the court decision.”
To make the matter more complicated, in February the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to stop states from giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The bill will now go to the Senate and if passed, will be signed by President George W. Bush, who has said that he supports the bill.
Meanwhile, some immigrants, delighted by the short-lived court order, have gone to get their licenses renewed but many were turned down.
“This policy will make the roads less safe, just as license restrictions have done in other states throughout the country,” said Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “Immigrants who need to drive to work will now face an impossible choice between breaking the law and make a living.”
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.
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