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Posted Friday, December 15, 2006
                     
Denied Licenses, Legal Immigrants Sue State Registry
            
By YVONNE ABRAHAM, Globe Staff

DECEMBER 15, 2006 - Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles employees are routinely and unlawfully denying driver's licenses to immigrants who are here legally, according to a class-action law suit filed yesterday.

According to the suit, Registry workers asked the immigrants for proof of legal residency when they were not authorized to do so. The workers then denied licenses to the applicants, incorrectly concluding that the immigrants had not demonstrated they were in the United States legally, the suit alleges.

In all cases, the immigrants' lawyers said, the Registry workers were overstepping their legal authority and violating the immigrants' constitutional rights.

"They don't have the authority to enforce federal immigration law," said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, who is representing the seven immigrants who brought the suit. "But they've taken it upon themselves to do it, and they're doing it wrong. It's not an isolated case here and there. This appears to be policy."

Wunsch said hundreds of other immigrants have similarly been denied licenses.

A spokeswoman for the Registry of Motor Vehicles declined to comment, saying Registry lawyers had not yet had a chance to review the lawsuit.

Under state policy, applicants for a driver's license must present proof of their identity by providing a valid Social Security number, which the Registry checks against a Social Security Administration database.

In order to obtain a valid Social Security number, an immigrant must be in the country legally. Applicants must also show proof of their age and address.

All of the plaintiffs presented valid Social Security numbers when they applied for licenses, Wunsch said. Even so, Registry workers rejected their applications.

In some of the cases, applicants were not given any reason why they were rejected. In the others, Registry employees improperly sought additional proof of the applicants' immigration status and then said the documents were not adequate.

Registry spokeswoman Amy Breton, speaking generally, said Registry employees do not enforce immigration laws.

But she added: "Certainly, we've had to become more familiar with immigration documents. We want to make sure we are issuing licenses to Massachusetts residents, because that is what the law calls for."

She said the Registry has been responsive to complaints that immigrants have been treated unfairly. On Wednesday night, the head of the agency, Registrar Anne L. Collins, met with about 300 immigrants and their advocates in Hyannis to hear their concerns about the license application process, she said.

In many cases, Breton said, immigrants who feel they have been unfairly denied a license can file an appeal, which costs $50.

Lawyers for the seven plaintiffs say their clients should not have to spend money to challenge what is clearly a discriminatory practice.

"The Registry seems to be asking immigrants to produce justification for their presence in the United States," said lead attorney Kenneth Berman of Nutter McClennen & Fish.Continued...

The lawyers said that the problems demonstrate the danger of having state employees who are not trained in immigration law taking on enforcement of that law.

Two immigrant advocacy groups are also plaintiffs in the suit, alleging that the Registry's discrimination against immigrants forces them to divert time and resources from other activities.

"This is extremely common," said Desmond FitzGerald, an immigration lawyer who represents four immigrants who were denied licenses in a separate case to be heard early next year. "We want the Registry to regulate the safety of our roads, not enforce immigration rules."

One of FitzGerald's clients, the wife of a prominent Spanish scientist who is in the United States on a visa reserved for persons of exceptional ability, was denied a license because Registry workers who asked for proof of her legal residency did not recognize her visa. After she sued the Registry, the agency settled the case, granting her a license.

One of the plaintiffs in the class action suit filed yesterday is an immigrant from Zimbabwe who has a pending application for asylum. The woman, a nurse, has work authorization and had already been granted a driver's license.

When she tried to renew that license this week, she produced her old license, her Social Security number, and proof of her car insurance coverage, which showed her address. Still, she was asked for her passport.

The woman, who fled political persecution in Zimbabwe, does not have a current, government-issued passport from that country. She showed the Registry employee a document showing that the US government had granted her permission to remain here. Her application was still denied, as was her daughter's application for a learner's permit.

"Given how dependent we all are on the right to drive an automobile, the denial of a license is causing real hardship to the people I represent," Berman said.

The issue of driver's licenses for immigrants has become highly charged over the past year, as the national debate on immigration has grown more fractious.

The question of issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants was a matter of fierce dispute during this year's gubernatorial race, in which Governor-elect Deval Patrick said he would consider giving licenses to those who are here illegally. He was pilloried for that suggestion by his opponent, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, who with Governor Mitt Romney has taken an aggressive stance against illegal immigration.

Immigrants' advocates said they worry that the Republican administration's zeal is causing Registry employees to punish immigrants who had followed all the rules.

Reprinted from The Boston Globe of Friday, December 15, 2006.

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

20 The New York Times Company

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