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DMV withdrawing IDs and Denying Driver Licenses to Refugees and Immigrants?

By Jackie Bong Wright

Virginia is making it difficult for recent immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, and foreign-born residents and their advocates are raising the matter as an issue needing resolution.
The case of Leyla Arale, a Somali-American clinical technician at the Inova Fair Oaks hospital and a 12-year U.S. resident, illustrates a problem that appears to be becoming widespread. Leyla petitioned in 1998 for her father, Mohamed Awala, a 57year-old widower, and five of his children to come to the U.S. so the family could be reunited. Three years later, they finally landed in Virginia with an I-94 refugee status paper allowing them to seek employment, and another paper with their photos on it provided by the INS certifying legal passage.
Leyla provided financial help and housing for her family, and acquired social security cards and medicaid services for six months for them in case they fell sick. She also got them IDs, presenting the documents mentioned above as well as an affidavit proving their status at her local DMV office. After a few weeks, she got a job for her father at a senior center in Springfield.
Having gotten work, her father now needed a car to get there, and Leyla decided to buy him a used one. They went back to the DMV to apply for a driver’s license, but found that the four documents and the ID that the DMV itself had provided, were not enough. The DMV required a passport. Her father explained that refugees fleeing a war-torn country could not expect a passport from their government. With that, the DMV manager at the Four Mile Run office confiscated Awala’s ID.
Was this a legitimate precaution by government officers in the aftermath of 9/11, Leyla wondered, or an unfair reaction?
Karimbakhsh Ghowsi, 42, a businessman from Afghanistan, had a similar experience. His brother, a U.S. citizen, sponsored him, his wife and three young children to come to the U.S. just before the 9/11 attacks. He, too, went to the DMV to get IDs so he and his wife could seek employment, showing them all the documents he had. Seven months later, they still have no IDs and are reduced to staying home, depressed and unable to work, their dream on indefinite hold.
These are not isolated cases. Abdirahman Dahir of the Lutheran Social Services says that he himself has documented over 25 such DMV denials of IDs and driver licenses for refugees he has been helping.

Critical Issues Addressed

The Northern Virginia Coalition for Refugees and Immigrants, a non-profit organization whose member agencies provide services for refugees and immigrants, held a town meeting on this subject on May 15. Invited to the Catholic Charities office in Arlington, were Virginia state Senator Leslie Byrne; Saba Shami, Special Assistant to the DMV Commissioner for Outreach; Loren Bussert from the Office of Refugee Resettlement; and Jessica Yutacom and Taiya Smith of the Department of State.
Leyla, her father, and Karim were there to present their cases, and 40 service providers also attended. Seyoum Berhe, an executive board member of NOVA Coalition for Refugees and Immigrants, acted as facilitator. He said to this reporter that, after the 9/11 attacks, with fear and anxiety across the nation, the DMV had been singled out for criticism for having provided IDs and driver’s license to at least one terrorist.
Behre said that the Virginia DMV staff failed to understand that refugees feared persecution from their own dictatorial governments, had languished in refugee camps or places of asylum for a long time, and were screened carefully by the UNHCR, the INS and the FBI before they arrived in this country. As refugees, they could in no way obtain legal passports, as the DMV wanted. The DMV, he said, should be more culturally sensitive to these clients.
Senator Leslie Byrne said that obtaining a driver license was a privilege and that the DMV had the right to take it away if there was proof of abuse. She had tried to help, she said, having introduced a bill to grant driver licenses to foreign nationals provided they showed proof of identity. The senator gave her address and invited people to write to her directly.
Saba Shami from the DMV said that he and his staff had to carry out the policies of the legislature. He said that their primary mandate was safety on the roads, and not security, which was a federal issue. He promised to respond to individual case and meet with people to try to solve problems as they arose. He would continue to hold regular training sessions on the needs of immigrants for his staff, who were versed in 15 different languages.
Jessica Yutacom, from the U.S. Department of State Refugee’s Bureau, said that her office processed refugees for U.S. resettlement at 18 different posts overseas. Once screened and accepted, refugees were provided an I-94 form. She promised to work with the INS to try to have a photo of each refugee on his or her I-94 form to confirm their identity and their authorization for employment upon entry. About 1,800 refugees per year, she noted, are placed in Virginia.
Loren Bussert from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the Department of Health and Human Services, lending credence to Seyoum Behre’s comment on the thoroughness with which refugees had been screened before their arrival here, said that only 11,000 refugees had arrived so far in the U.S. this fiscal year out of the 70,000 that had been approved by the President as this year’s ceiling. The slow in-take, he said, was due to security checks, rechecks and reviews by the authorities. He added that ORR continued to advocate not only fulfilling the commitment of the President to bring all 70,000 refugees during FY 2002, but also to provide financial and technical support for those already in the country.
Rounding out the discussion was Teresa Martinez, chair of the Legislative Committee of the Hispanic Bar Association of Virginia. She explained how the Virginia legislature had focused on two possible requirements for driver’s license applicants – proof of identity, and Virginia residency. She said that although the lawmakers had endorsed the first requirement, they had explicitly deferred a decision on the second. Nonetheless, the DMV was imposing a “legal presence” requirement, going beyond the law that in fact passed.

Recommendations

After the meeting, Mr. Behre said that people were pleased at the positive responses they received from the officials, who showed themselves willing to continue the dialogue with refugee and immigrant groups, and ready to coordinate their efforts with other government agencies. Behre recommended that voluntary agencies, which have been resettling refugees and immigrants, play an active role in assisting the DMV to verify the identity and residency for their clients in an acceptable and non-discriminatory way. He felt, too, that the I-94 with photo should be valid as an ID and qualify the bearer for immediate employment upon entry. Finally, he favored sensitivity training for government staff at all levels as one means of encouraging respectful treatment of foreign-born clients.