Immigration – December 28, 2020
TrueNewsBlog – TNB
By: Nathaniel Ballantyne
(TrueNewsBlog) – More than 300,000 undocumented immigrants are eligible to seek “driver privilege cards” after Jan. 1, when a new law will make Virginia the first Southern state to give that population a way to legally drive.
The change could exacerbate backlogs at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which because of the coronavirus pandemic has sharply limited the number of people it lets through its doors.
It can take several months to get an appointment for in-person services, and new drivers need at least two appointments — one to take the written test for a learner’s permit, the other for the road test.
The DMV and state lawmakers have taken steps to try to ease the strain, partly by expanding the number of testing sites available to any Virginian seeking a license. Advocates for immigrants are urging prospective drivers to make good use of any delays by studying Virginia’s rules of the road.
“We wish that was not the case, that from Day 1 everyone would be served,” said Luis A. Aguilar, the Virginia director with the CASA immigrant advocacy group. “But having this reality, it means moving to the next step, which means making sure people are prepared.”
Undocumented immigrants seeking licenses have failed the required tests at high rates in some of the other states that offer them, Aguilar said. So CASA has posted a Spanish-language version of the state’s driving manual online and plans to hold in-person courses for people without Internet access.
The new law marks a sharp policy shift for the commonwealth, where Democrats gained control of both the state House and Senate a year ago for the first time in decades. Together with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), the legislature enacted sweeping changes that Republicans had long blocked, such as expanding gay rights and voting access, raising the minimum wage and tightening gun laws.
Extending driving privileges to undocumented immigrants — something available in the District, Maryland and 14 other states — was part of that push. The change was billed as a way to increase safety on Virginia roads and improve the lives of undocumented immigrants and their families. Republican opponents said the cards could help immigrants falsely pass for American citizens.
Advocates initially lobbied for standard licenses, but to get buy-in from more-conservative Democrats, legislators settled instead for the driver privilege cards. They look almost identical to ordinary licenses but are not federal “Real ID” cards and cannot be used as identification to board an airplane or enter a secure federal facility.
The DMV now offers about 45,000 written-test appointments and about 5,000 road-skills-test appointments per month, department spokeswoman Jessica Cowardin said. With immigrants adding to the demand for DMV appointments, she said, the department will open a second customer service center in Sterling on Jan. 4.
It is also partnering with Fairfax County to conduct testing at schools or other county buildings not in use because of the pandemic. Those locations were still being finalized, she said.
One immigrant who will be seeking the new card is Nerbir Rodriguez, who made his way from El Salvador to Fairfax County 16 years ago and helped lobby for the new law.
Rodriguez, now 36, worked in construction when he first arrived in the county, but he said his bosses sometimes cheated him out of his wages. He eventually decided to go into business for himself as a landscaper. The only hitch: He needed to drive to get to various job sites, and he did not have a license.
Rodriguez said he drove illegally for about seven years and periodically got stopped and charged with driving without a license. One time, police turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I was three times put in jail, and one of those times, the police passed me to immigration and ICE, and so I was locked up through ICE,” Rodriguez, speaking in Spanish, said through an interpreter. “I was very close to being deported.”
He hired an attorney and avoided deportation, but not before spending three months in jail. His company — growing before he was locked up — had crumbled by the time he got out.
“I lost everything, absolutely everything,” he said. “I got out of that jail without money. And the only family member that I had abandoned me and even sold the few things that I had.”
Rodriguez’s attorney helped him apply for political asylum about two years ago, based on circumstances that Rodriguez declined to discuss in an interview. As an asylum seeker, he was allowed to get a license through a mechanism unrelated to the new law.
But that license is about to expire, and Rodriguez is not sure whether it is renewable. So he will apply for the new driver privilege card instead.
“When I got the driver’s license, it was a change between Earth and heaven,” said Rodriguez, who rebuilt his business over the past two years and now has eight employees. “I’ve even been thinking about hiring three or four more people, and all of that thanks to having a license and being able to drive.”