Virginia Law Targets Peddlers of Phony Driver's Licenses

Surrounded by other men gathered on a corner to find work, a day-laborer reaches into his battered wallet and presents what he once considered his key to legal driving.

It's the size of a standard ID, bearing a picture of the 47-year-old painter as well as his date of birth, address and eye color. He paid $200 for the identification from a vendor, who assured the undocumented Honduran he could use the card to drive in Virginia.

But federal and state transportation officials say these bogus international driver's licenses are worthless in the U.S. and a knockoff of the legitimate licenses used by Americans who travel abroad.

A new Virginia law takes aim at the people who peddle these phony licenses, punishing those who prey on illegal aliens while keeping unlicensed and untested motorists off the roads.

The law makes it a misdemeanor to sell, give, or distribute any document purporting to be a driver's license. Violations would be punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The measure, which goes into effect July 1, strengthens existing restrictions on producing fake licenses.

Del. Albert Eisenberg, the Arlington Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said bogus licenses offer false hope. "They're paying for worthless paper and then they get arrested on top of that," be said.

Critics argue, however, that the law only deals with one aspect of a problem primarily related to illegal workers.

"(There are) millions of people in the U.S. who have no access to secure, government-issued identification documents," said attorney Tim Freilich, an advocate for immigrant rights with the Virginia Justice Center. "The surge in advertisements and scams regarding international driver's permits is a direct result."

Priced out of the cities and into suburbs, where public transportation is limited, undocumented immigrants will continue to drive illegally until lawmakers offer a legitimate driving option, he said.

Fairfax Republican Del. David Albo argues that would reward illegal aliens. The delegate sponsored legislation in 2004 that tightened the state's licensing procedures, in part because seven of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers had Virginia licenses obtained through loopholes.

"The solution is for the illegal aliens to become legal immigrants," he said. "Once they're legal immigrants, they can get a driver's license."

Utah has a special driver's license for undocumented immigrants, while Tennessee is reviewing a similar program because of problems authenticating documents used to prove state residency.

In all but nine of the remaining states, applicants for an operator's license must prove they're here lawfully. Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin do not require that proof.

The bogus license are similar to the international driver's licenses that cost about $10. They are used to supplement a legitimate driver's license when Americans drive while abroad.

They are only legally issued by the American Automobile Touring Alliance or AAA, said Martha Mitchell, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

An international driver's license alone is worthless to those who typically purchase them for hundreds of dollars — plus "renewal fees."

State and local police don't keep track of how many drivers are pulled over using the phony licenses. In the Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County alone, however, records show about three cases come through traffic court weekly.

"People who buy these things are mostly immigrants, undocumented aliens who don't have a valid U.S. driver's license and want something that they think will give them the right to drive," explained Lemuel Dowdy, a staff attorney with the Federal Trade Commission.

Vendors — typically travel agencies — target Latinos online or through ads in Spanish-language newspapers they figure law enforcement officials don't read, Dowdy said. Others hang out where undocumented immigrants seek jobs, such as the Arlington labor site where the Honduran displayed his international license.

The sellers know that among day-laborers, driving is a major advantage, explained Andres Tobar, a Latino activist and executive director of the Shirlington Employment and Education Center, which manages the Arlington day-labor site.

About 80 men a day come to the site, many catching a bus. But others drive with international licenses, said Tobar, who heard of someone paying $700 for one.

Speaking through a translator recently, the Honduran said he was desperate to get to work when he bought his license five years ago. He'd long been driving on his Honduran license, which is valid only if the holder is here legally.

"Many people come up and offer them," he said of the card he bought for $200, or two day's pay. "They say to you, with that license, you can register your car and can drive."

The Alexandria man declined to provide his name to an Associated Press reporter, fearing deportation.

He said he hasn't ever used the license to drive — but he keeps it tucked in his wallet anyhow.