Whatever your hassles at the DMV—the lines, the endless new documentation demands prompted by the federal REAL ID Act—undocumented immigrants in the District have it worse.

And yes, that’s even after the city passed a law letting them get driver’s licenses.

Off-the-books immigrants looking to drive in the District once had to choose between driving without the city’s sanction or relying on less convenient transportation methods.

Many of them chose to break the law. In an October Vanity Fair story, Washington Post reporter-turned-immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas wrote about how he once had to fake an Oregon address to get a license from that state for an internship at the paper.

Mayor Vince Gray proposed a bill last year that would allow immigrants to apply for licenses regardless of their status. The entire Wilson Building was on board. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose transportation committee oversees the Department of Motor Vehicles, backed the bill. Ditto Ward 1’s Jim Graham, who chairs the Council’s human services committee and represents a ward that’s nearly 30 percent Latino.

The only dispute was over whether immigrants would receive regular District driver’s licenses. Federal REAL ID Act requirements that jurisdictions ensure that licensees are here legally mean that issuing regular licenses to undocumented immigrants could have invalidated all District licenses, including those for citizens and legal residents.

Instead, Gray backed a “limited purpose license” that would include a disclaimer that doesn’t appear on regular licenses, and so wouldn’t run afoul of the feds. After some griping—Graham posed with his face inside a supersized model of a driver’s license at one rally—the Council agreed with Gray.

Despite the new law, though, actually getting a limited purpose driver’s license has remained difficult. Wait times for an appointment to get the license have stretched to almost a year. While the DMV has since managed to reduce the wait to a few months, proposed new rules could make it still more complicated for undocumented immigrants to get licensed.

Three months after the DMV started offering provisional licenses in May, problems had already appeared. In an August email to DMV head Lucinda Babers that was shared with LL, D.C. Latino Caucus president Franklin Garcia laid them out. Garcia’s constituents complained that DMV personnel couldn’t speak their language. If they did manage to get an appointment, DMV staff sometimes mistreated them, Garcia claims.

But in order to even face those obstacles at the DMV, undocumented immigrants first had to score an appointment. And for that, they had better sit tight. In August, the DMV’s online system’s first available appointment was in May 2015—nearly nine months later. Unless they were willing to shun their cars for the better part of a year, immigrants were stuck driving illegally until the DMV would make time for them.

Mayra Ibarra, a staffer at Columbia Heights’ Central American Resource Center, ran into the same problem helping immigrants sign up for the license. Making appointments in June, Ibarra found that the system only offered chances to head to the DMV in March 2015—a 10-month wait. Facing a bureaucratic logjam of a process, it’s not hard to imagine immigrants already here illegally who continue to risk driving without a license instead.

“We don’t see why people aren’t able to just go to the DMV and apply,” Ibarra says.

The DMV blames hijinks in the appointment system for the delays. In an August email to Garcia, Babers said license-seekers making multiple appointments with the agency were responsible for the months-long wait. Babers claims one person scheduled as many as 180 appointments himself. If the Latino Caucus wanted to resolve the problem, it could convince people not to make so many appointments, Babers told Garcia.

The license backup has shrunk since the summer. As LL writes this, an undocumented immigrant looking to drive legally can book an appointment for February—a comparatively shorter three-month wait, but still a long time to have an unlicensed driver on the streets. Via email, Garcia, who was elected to the District’s shadow delegate position earlier this month, tells LL that the issue is on its way to being fixed.

The agency managed to reduce the backlog by getting better at anticipating duplicate appointments, according to DMV spokeswoman Vanessa Newton. The DMV has also reduced the length of the appointments from one hour to 30 minutes, doubling the number of available appointments.

But it isn’t entirely open roads for undocumented immigrants. Maryland, which offers similar licenses, has avoided lengthy waits by requiring applicants to provide a tax identification number. In her email to Garcia, Babers pointed to the lack of the tax number requirement in D.C. as a reason for the delays.
Having a tax ID number prevents would-be drivers from creating multiple identities (and thus, appointments).

But it also creates a significant paperwork hassle for undocumented immigrants, a group not known for having access to a lot of credentials. Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration advises license applicants to do a couple things before applying, including writing to the IRS and filing two years of state income taxes.

Given Babers’ previous interest in the tax number requirement, Ibarra worries that the DMV will impose the same requirement. That would certainly reduce the wait time—by effectively excluding immigrants who haven’t paid taxes or who can’t navigate the tax number process. In an email to activists shared with LL, Babers says she’s contemplating asking Cheh to change the driver’s license bill to require a tax ID number.

“It would create such a huge barrier to all these people who just want to get a driver’s license,” Ibarra says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery