Advocates for immigrants are urging the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration to improve its services to foreign nationals, saying long wait times and confusing requirements have created a climate in which immigrant drivers are being exploited.
Immigrants and their advocates complain that MVA's phone lines are constantly busy, with applicants waiting as long as six months to schedule an appointment. As a result, a side business has emerged: opportunists offering to make appointments for immigrants for as much as $100, say advocates.
State officials say they are working to provide better services to immigrants while balancing the need to keep licenses secure amid a rising number of fraud investigations.
Maryland is one of eight states that issue driver's licenses and identification cards to foreign-born residents, regardless of their immigration status. In 2003, the MVA initiated an application process for foreign citizens, and since September, it has required in-person appointments at one of 10 MVA offices to review the authenticity of documents.
But demand for services has far exceeded the agency's ability to provide them.
"This is the latest manifestation of the overall lack of services to the foreign-born community and the differential services they receive at the MVA," said Elizabeth Alex, an advocate with immigrant rights group CASA of Maryland, which filed a lawsuit against the MVA two years ago charging it with creating illegal barriers to immigrants trying to obtain licenses.
"Everybody's trying to do the right thing, so they can drive legally and get insurance," Alex said. "While they are running into this problem with the MVA, as a result, they are being exploited by folks outside of the MVA taking advantage of that lack of services."
Advocates and MVA officials met this week to discuss the issues, and both sides said the conversation was productive. MVA Administrator John T. Kuo said the agency is committed to reaching out to such groups in the Latino and Asian communities to dispel myths and find ways to better serve customers.
In addition, this summer, the agency plans to spend $500,000 to open a call center equipped with new scheduling technology and staffed by employees fluent in Spanish, devoted solely to handling the requests for appointments.
Now, the MVA receives 4,000 calls a day for all services, with just eight of the 65 operators tasked to schedule appointments.
"Part of the challenge we're experiencing is that individuals don't understand the documentation requirements," Kuo said. "We are really trying to build a win-win partnership with many of the community advocates."
MVA officials stressed to advocates that the agency cannot increase the number of appointments because of limited resources.
They noted the system is more manageable than a set-up tried for several months last year, when the agency temporarily abandoned its appointment system to allow walk-ins. At the MVA's Gaithersburg office, people were lining up overnight waiting for the MVA's doors to open, said Buel Young, an MVA spokesman.
Kuo said the MVA faces a unique challenge of serving immigrant communities while keeping the license process secure. As the requests for licenses increase, so does the incidence of fraud, he said.
For instance, from January through May, the MVA has investigated 300 cases of people using phony documents to obtain licenses, compared with 459 fraud cases in all of 2006. At this pace, the MVA expects to record about 720 incidents by the end of 2007.
"Part of our concern is people who come here from out of state and are jamming up our call center," he said.
Kuo would not say how many fraud cases involve out-of-state residents, but the issue has been a concern of some members of the General Assembly, who have tried for years to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining Maryland licenses.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said illegal immigrants from other states are flocking to Maryland seeking licenses.
"Maryland is one of the worst states in the country and is popularly known through the grapevine for this," said McDonough, one of the House of Delegates' most vocal opponents to illegal immigration. "It has put a huge burden on the MVA."
The agency is also under pressure from federal legislation known as the Real ID Act, which requires states to reform licensing rules by May 2008. A key provision of the regulations, which are still in draft form, would make all states require residents to be "legally present" to receive driver's licenses.
Some lawmakers in Annapolis have objected to the change, and elsewhere some states have refused to comply. Last year, Utah began making "driving privilege cards" available to illegal immigrants, used solely for driving.
Before the card, Utah also experienced fraud, said Preston Raban, a spokesman for the state's department of public safety, which issues licenses.
"It happened so often, it turned into a complete mess," he said. "But now, you don't have to worry about people trying to go through the back door and going around things. They are able to drive and are able to be insured."
Maryland's response to the spike in fraud cases came last summer when the MVA moved to restrict the documents accepted for applications - doing away with foreign baptismal and school records, for example, because they are difficult to authenticate.
Nevertheless, Kuo acknowledged, con artists abound, selling fraudulent documents to immigrants as well as charging them for appointments that should be free.
Jessica Contreras, chairwoman of the board of the Latino Provider's Network, a group of social service providers to Baltimore's Hispanic community, helped talk a client out of paying for such a service.
Blanca, of Baltimore, who agreed only to give her first name for fear of being deported, said she called the MVA every day for three months, until she decided in May to show up at the Glen Bernie office to make an appointment.
Blanca said an MVA agent would not schedule an appointment but instead told her that many immigrants have paid a nearby merchant $100 to call the appointment line for them.
"I know other people who have paid for this, but I think it's unfair," said Blanca, a mother of four who left El Salvador seven years ago. "You shouldn't have to pay for anything like that. Not for an appointment."
Kuo said the MVA tries to steer customers away from such services and he doesn't believe an MVA agent would offer such advice: "There have certainly been many individuals who claim to be associated with the MVA - there are a lot of scam artists out there today. We work very closely with law enforcement."
Flor Giusti, a social worker with Casey Family Services, said such schemes are rampant in illegal immigrant communities where everything is offered - for a price. And too often, people desperate for the legitimacy that comes with a driver's license are willing to pay.
When Giusti has accompanied clients to the MVA to translate into Spanish or walk them through the document review process, other immigrants have approached her for help.
"They ask me, 'How much do you charge for an appointment?'" she said. "It's crazy."