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In Congress' Shadow, D.C. Welcomes Immigrants Here Illegally

Image: Cars drive on Interstate 395 in Washington, D.C.
Cars drive on Interstate 395 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC -- Roberto Trejo admits he has driven without a license at times to run his younger brother and sister to after school activities or help the family in other ways. But it has always been risky.

That's why his mother begged him not to drive his father to the hospital even though he was coughing up blood. The cost had kept them from calling an ambulance, but Trejo's mother also was terrified her son would be stopped by police who would learn he didn't have a license because he's here illegally.

So Trejo is eager for his upcoming appointment next week with the District of Columbia's Department of Motor Vehicles, where he will take his documents to prove he cannot get a Social Security number and therefore is qualified to apply for a Limited Purpose Driver License.

"I feel like getting a driver's license, (I'm) going to have more opportunity, more free. I feel like finally I got a little kind of voice. I've been heard," said Trejo, who is originally from Mexico.

Even though the extended congressional immigration debate in its backyard has gone nowhere, the District of Columbia has moved forward over the past three years with progressive policies aimed at integrating immigrants, regardless of legal status.

On Wednesday, the district starts taking applications for the licenses open to people who have been a D.C. resident at least six months and who can show they don't have and can't get a Social Security number. Along with the licenses, the district provides health insurance to lower income residents without requiring proof of citizenship or legal residency in the U.S. and does not hold people for immigration officials unless they are serious criminals.

The licenses are being made available at the same time the district starts replacing driver's licenses with the so-called REAL ID, a license that is meant to comply with federal regulations implemented after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. People here illegally are not eligible for REAL IDs.

Appointments, which have to be made online, already are booked for the first two weeks of May.

Even though the immigration debate in Congress has gone nowhere, the District of Columbia has moved forward over the past three years with progressive policies aimed at integrating immigrants, regardless of legal status.

Roxana Olivas, executive director of the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs, said the licenses are another installment in policies intended to protect the immigrant population.

Olivas said she has been working on such policies since her days working with D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, while he was a council member and as mayor, including ensuring vital government documents are translated, fighting Real ID legislation and later an executive order prohibiting checks on legal status for public services and public safety offices.

Gray was defeated in the district's April 1 Democratic primary, which has traditionally decided the mayoral race, although winning candidate Muriel Bowser faces opposition in November from council member David Cantania, an Independent.

Oliva said that during the time she worked for Gray, the city had worked to protect immigrants. "We've seen a number of individuals move in from other jurisdictions," she said.

Olivas sees the special license as an economic plus because immigrants will buy insurance, possibly attend school more easily and make more of an investment in the city."That philosophy of cracking down and making people scared and tracking them, it just doesn't make sense."

Providing driver's licenses to people illegally in the country has long been controversial with arguments over whether it improves or weakens public safety and national security.

But 10 states, Puerto Rico and the district provide or plan to provide various forms of driving privileges to people illegally in the country, according to the National Immigration Law Center. A referendum on a law extending driving privileges in Oregon is pending. Arizona and Nebraska prohibit young immigrants who have been granted temporary relief from deportation from getting licenses.

"That philosophy of cracking down and making people scared and tracking them, it just doesn't make sense."

In California, groups have prepared for the issuance of special licenses for immigrants with preparation for written tests after high numbers of immigrants failed driving tests in Nevada, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

The license only allows D.C. residents to drive in the district and doesn't extend driving privileges outside its boundaries.

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