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Undocumented immigrants face long wait to apply for driver’s license

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mark Brown

Every morning at 9 a.m., a ritual plays out in homes and offices across the Chicago area as thousands of people dial their phones or click online in hopes of being among the relatively few selected for that day’s chance at a valuable prize. But this is no radio contest, and failure to “win” can be more frustrating than losing out on a big cash jackpot. These contestants are undocumented immigrants trying to get an appointment with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office to apply for a driver’s license. One year after the state’s new Temporary Visitor Driver’s License law took effect, the program is still very much a work in progress with demand for the licenses outstripping the Secretary of State’s ability to process applicants. About 69,500 licenses have been issued so far, but the still unmet demand is estimated to be four or five times greater than that. Thus, the daily maddening attempt to get an appointment, usually met by busy signals and messages to try again. To beat the system, many Chicago area immigrants are trekking to drivers license facilities in Central Illinois and even as far away as Carbondale if they can find an open time slot. The long trip can be worth the peace of mind of knowing that a routine traffic stop by police won’t result in an arrest for failing to possess a valid driver’s license — an encounter that could result in being reported to federal immigration authorities. Manuela Corral, 42, a 14-year resident of Melrose Park, said she has called the Secretary of State’s designated phone line every day for months, trying to get an appointment for her daughter, who works during the day. Corral, who works nights as a cleaning lady, is a legal U.S. resident, but her daughter is not. “As a mother, I’m very worried for my daughter,” Corral told me through a translator. “The license is really important for her.” She said she worries her daughter will be pulled over by police while driving back and forth to her job or to school, or while taking Corral’s son to doctor appointments. On Tuesday, immigration advocates began what so far seems to be a low-key effort at ratcheting up pressure on Secretary of State Jesse White to take additional steps to process more applications. Overall, they say, the Secretary of State’s office has worked through most of the obstacles the program has faced since its inception and has been open to further improvements. But the problem of meeting the demand for licenses remains a major frustration in immigrant communities. To help ease the backlog, the office earlier this month began scheduling appointments six months in advance instead of the usual three months. That opened up an additional 25,000 time slots beyond the 776 that normally become available each day. Lisa Grau, who administers the TVDL program for the Secretary of State, said about 6,000 of those 25,000 appointments remained unfilled as of Tuesday. “If you went online right now, you could get an appointment,” said Grau, who takes that as a sign that “maybe demand is dying down slightly.” But immigration advocates say nearly all the yet unfilled time slots are far away from the Chicago area, where most of the state’s undocumented immigrants reside. And Grau concedes that applicants using a phone instead of a computer may still face hurdles getting their calls answered. In addition, the advocates say original estimates that 250,000 undocumented Illinois residents could be eligible for the special drivers licenses now appear far too low. Further complicating the situation is that the temporary licenses are due to expire three years from when they were issued, meaning the Secretary of State might need to start processing renewals before it has caught up to all the new applicants. Grau stressed the Secretary of State will continue to listen to suggestions from immigration groups and legislators, some of whom participated in a community forum Tuesday at the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights to draw attention to the issue. Of the more than 100,000 individuals who have already had an appointment to get their TVDL, 8 percent were rejected for having insufficient documentation, 5 percent for failing the exam and 8 percent for some problem with their prior driving record, according to a Secretary of State spokesman. Eleven percent were no-shows. From the start, the Secretary of State’s office has asked for patience as it implements this completely new program, which only made sense. But patience can grow thin.

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