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Lawsuit Charges Md. MVA Denies Immigrants Driver's Licenses

CASA of Maryland sued the state Motor Vehicle Administration Tuesday, claiming the MVA has unlawfully denied driver's licenses to immigrants and placed an undue burden on foreign-born residents seeking driver's licenses.

The suit says the MVA has refused to accept legal forms of identification and that it violated the Maryland Administrative Procedure Act when it changed the rules for foreign-born applicants to obtain a driver's license or learner's permit.

The MVA is reserving comment until it sees the suit, said agency spokesman Buel Young.

Regulations begun in July 2004 have made it cumbersome for non-U.S. citizens to obtain licenses. They must make an appointment at one of eight MVA offices in Maryland, and, because processing and verifying foreign documents is time consuming, the number of daily appointments is limited, according to the MVA.

Before July 2004, applicants with foreign documents could visit any MVA office with an appointment.

The suit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, claims the current rules were made in violation of the regulatory process, and foreign-born applicants are forced to wait months for an appointment.

Jose Hernandez Araujo, a plaintiff in the suit who has lived legally in the United States for 20 years, said at CASA's news conference that he presented valid documents to apply for a license, including a Maryland identification card. After he passed the vision and written tests, he went to his appointment, but was told he had to wait six months to take the driving test.

The MVA would not return his Maryland identification or his driver's license from New York, he said, and now he can't work without a license.

Immigration status is irrelevant to the MVA, which cannot deny a driver's license based on a person's legal status in this country. A bipartisan bill to prevent those residing illegally in the United States from obtaining a Maryland driver's license failed to pass the House in the last session of the General Assembly.

CASA also alleges documents and translation services also are not being adequately provided as required under the Equal Access to Public Services for Individuals with Limited English Proficiency Act, said Steve Smitson, CASA of Maryland legal director.

The written test and driver's manual are available in Spanish, Young said, and the agency provides a list of certified translators that applicants can hire.

In addition, MVA employs 28 Spanish speakers, the majority of whom work in two offices where a high number of Spanish-speaking customers go, he said.

Customers also may use MVA's language service to call for appointments, he said. In July and August of this year, Young said, the MVA spent more money on that language service than in all of 2004.

"We're always exploring other options to make it more customer-friendly," he said.

About 595,000 foreign-born residents live in Maryland, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and nearly 135,000 Spanish speakers who speak English "less than very well."

Another portion of the suit claims applicants who have been denied a license have not received written denials as the law requires, Smitson said.

"There is no doubt that that lawlessness has caused serious economic harm to the Latino community," Smitson said, referring to plaintiffs, such as Araujo, who are unable to work because they don't have driver's licenses.

The suit also claims that valid foreign passports are not being accepted as identification in violation of state regulations.

Foreign passports with visas are acceptable, according to the MVA.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.