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The Nation

Undocumented Workers Hit Roadblock in New York

Hundreds of thousands could lose their driver's licenses, which many need to work.

June 06, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Amid stained glass windows and flickering candles at the Church of St. Vito, the immigrants joined hands and prayed during a special Mass for relief from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

In the last several weeks, the department has sent 275,540 letters to drivers who obtained licenses using Social Security numbers that did not match federal records. The notices required motorists to reply within 15 days or risk revocation.

The action has caused anxiety among groups representing undocumented immigrants, many of whom entered the country illegally and provided false Social Security numbers so they could get the driver's licenses to help them find work. Many operate taxis and limousines or work in suburban landscaping businesses.

The New York Immigration Coalition estimates that about 200,000 motorists -- many of whom are undocumented -- risk having their licenses revoked. In the mid-1990s, providing a Social Security number was not mandatory to get a license in New York. But as those licenses came up for renewal, the identification was required.

The controversy mirrors the debate over driver's licenses being issued to undocumented immigrants in California. Soon after taking office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed a law signed by his predecessor Gray Davis that would have made it legal for them to get licenses -- an act that may have contributed to his defeat in the recall election.

A study by the Urban Institute estimates that the nation has about 9.3 million undocumented immigrants, with about 26% living in California and about 8% in New York. About 6 million hold jobs.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, 40 states including New York require that people applying for a driver's license prove they are legally in the country.

Ten states -- including Tennessee, New Mexico and Utah -- issue driver's licenses to residents regardless of their immigration status, if identity can be proved in some way.

"States vary widely in their requirements. The bottom line is that it can be an incredibly complex system, and in some instances motor vehicle bureaus are being turned into quasi immigration agencies," said Tyler Moran, a policy analyst for the Law Center.

"I got involved because the people came to me. They were nervous, upset, not knowing where to turn," said Father James Healy, who has served as St. Vito's pastor for a dozen years and who helped organize the Mass last week in the Westchester County community north of New York City.

"Their jobs were in peril. They don't want to be arrested for driving without a license. It's an extremely important issue. What we're really talking about is something that's interfering with the right that I think everybody has -- to earn a living and to support a family," the priest said.

"When you're impeded by not being able to get a license in an area that does not have public transportation, then that's interfering with that right," Healy said.

Among the 400 people attending the Mass, in the front pew, was Daniel Sanchez, who came to the United States from Mexico in 1989. He said he lost his job driving for a limousine company when his license expired last month. He couldn't renew it, he said, because he didn't have a Social Security number.

"It's a tough situation. It's tough to find a job," he said.

Seated in a center row, Nixon Barrios, who immigrated from Guatemala and said he works as a driver for a landscaping firm, is worried because his license is due for renewal and he doesn't have a Social Security card.

New York State motor vehicle officials stressed the review is necessary to weed out drivers whose licenses have been revoked or suspended and have obtained new ones by using false identification. In a case that was turned over to prosecutors, they said, 57 people were discovered using the same Social Security number.

Checks of 4.9 million records so far have turned up drivers involved in credit scams, found parents delinquent in child support payments and led to the discovery of document fraud rings.

"We have 20 million records in our files and we know a percentage of them are flawed," said Raymond P. Martinez, New York's motor vehicle commissioner. "This is a valuable tool."

Martinez said that after Sept. 11 the need to check driver's licenses, which he described as "breeder documents" allowing people easily to obtain other identification, was obvious. The commissioner said some names that have turned up matched those on government watch lists.

The church service was part of an escalating campaign to convince Gov. George Pataki to eliminate a Social Security number as a mandatory requirement for obtaining a license. To raise public awareness of the issue, plans exist for what advocates describe as a massive telephone call-in to the governor's office and for caravans of cars in New York City.

According to the National Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators, 31 states are checking driver's licenses with the Social Security Administration.

Armando E. Botello, a spokesman for California's Department of Motor Vehicles, said that 93% of the state's database of over 23 million license holders has been verified and that about 10% failed on the first attempt.

The vast majority turned out to be innocent mistakes, including typing errors, transposed numbers and name changes through marriage, he said. Officials in New York State expect that they will also find many errors that can be readily explained.

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