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Published: Saturday, 3/2/2013

Illegal immigrants see rules shift

Issuing of drivers’ licenses inconsistent among counties

BY FEDERICO MARTINEZ
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Thousands of illegal immigrants may be able to obtain an Ohio driver’s license or state personal identification card, depending on where they apply for it.

Some Bureau of Motor Vehicle offices, such as those in Lucas County, have issued driver’s licenses to thousands of illegal immigrants for several months.

But other branches — mostly in southern Ohio counties — are turning away thousands of people until the state licensing bureau announces an official policy on the matter.

“The discussion has been going on for some weeks,” Joe Andrews, a spokesman for the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said. “I anticipate a decision soon.”

Until then, each of the state’s 190 license bureaus is being allowed to make its own decision, Mr. Andrews said.

The initiative is the Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows those who were brought into the United States illegally by their parents before they were age 16 a chance to stay in the United States for two years.

Those who qualify pay taxes and can obtain a Social Security card and work legally.

In January, the Department of Homeland Security clarified the wording of the initiative, which appears to indicate that immigrants whose applications have been accepted for the deferred action program can obtain a driver’s license.

At least 33 states, including Michigan, have determined that deferred action applicants are eligible for driver’s licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

Tom Thornburg, co-managing attorney for Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan, said qualifying immigrants have reported no problem obtaining driver’s licenses since Michigan began issuing them on Feb. 19.

An estimated 23,000 immigrants currently qualify for driver’s licenses in Michigan under the deferred action guidelines, Ruben Martinez, director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University, said.

That number is expected to increase as more people apply for the status, Mr. Martinez said.

The number of immigrants who qualify for licenses under the deferred action status in Ohio was not immediately available, but immigration advocates say the numbers are likely similar to those in Michigan.

Because each licensing bureau in Ohio works independently, it is difficult to say how many immigrants have already applied for driver’s licenses, officials said.

The lack of a consistent Ohio policy has caused confusion for immigrants and licensing bureau workers, according to several Ohio attorneys who specialize in immigration law.

Attorney Brian DiFranco, who operates offices in Toledo and the Columbus area, said most licensing bureaus in Lucas County and surrounding counties are already issuing licenses to qualifying immigrants.

Bureaus in the Columbus area have been less consistent. Mr. DiFranco, who is a member of Ohio’s chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the association is currently working with state officials to create a consistent policy.

He and other immigrant advocates believe Ohio will begin granting the licenses soon.

Eugenio Mallo, Jr., a staff attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., in Toledo, said issuing driver licenses to illegal immigrants makes “practical sense” to have “trained drivers on the road.”

Many illegal immigrants will continue to drive regardless of whether they are granted driver’s licenses, agreed Baldemar Velasquez, president of Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

“I think eventually Ohio will follow suit,” Mr. Velasquez said.

“This isn’t an issue of immigration. This is an issue of safety on the highways.”

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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