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Undocumented immigrants eligible for driver privilege cards in 2021 under new Virginia law

by Jackie DeFusco/WRIC ABC 8 News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After a new law takes effect on Jan.1, some undocumented immigrants in Virginia will be eligible for ‘driver privilege cards.’

The change drew push back from many Republican lawmakers before it passed earlier this year. The party generally opposed the idea of giving legal credentials to non-citizens, though some were partially swayed by the argument that requiring people to take a driving test could make the roads safer. 

Supporters of the legislation said allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain this credential would give them peace of mind while traveling to work, school or when seeking medical treatment. 

Talking to 8News through a translator on Thursday, Flor Calderon, 39, and Consuelo Carabali, 36, said they’re excited to take advantage of this long-awaited change.

“I felt incredible when I saw that we passed the law and now just thinking that many people can get the opportunity to drive legally is something very amazing,” Carabali said.

“This is very personal for all of us,” Calderon said. “I feel privileged right now to be able to apply.”

The card is similar to a driver’s license but there are a few key differences. 

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, the minimum age for eligibility is 16 years and three months. Those seeking the credential have to pass a written test and a driving test. 

Applicants have to report income from an employer in Virginia or be claimed a dependent on a tax return filed in the Commonwealth in the past 12 months. 

The privilege card is not REAL ID compliant, meaning it cannot be used to board a flight or to enter a secure federal facility. It also cannot be used to vote. 

Del. Kathy Tran (D-Springfield), who sponsored the legislation in the House of Delegates, said about 300,000 undocumented immigrants will qualify but it may be a while before everyone whose eligible can obtain the card. 

The new law takes effect as the DMV continues to deal with a backlog of appointments due to the coronavirus pandemic. It can take months to book an in-person time slot, though mobile visits are generally available two weeks in advance, according to DMV spokesperson Matthew Butner.

“Appointment slots fill up more quickly in heavily populated regions like northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond,” Butner said.

Elena Camacho with the New Virginia Majority has been helping to book appointments for immigrants who can’t access the internet.

“It’s very impossible. You see the website and you see that they don’t have any appointments three months in a row,” Camacho said.

Butner said the DMV currently offers about 5,000 road-skills-test appointments and about 45,000 written-test appointments per month overall. He said the state is constantly looking for ways to free up appointment capacity by moving services online.

On Jan. 4, the DMV will open a second customer service center in Sterling to assist with the demand. The state is also partnering with Fairfax County to conduct testing in buildings that aren’t being used during the pandemic, like schools. Additionally, the DMV is expanding call center staff by hiring 18 more full-time employees.

Meanwhile, community advocates are stepping in to help walk people through the process. 

CASA, an immigrant rights group, has posted a Spanish-language version of the state’s driving manual online. The organization is also offering virtual classes to its members. 

Some advocacy organizations still have concerns about the stakes of turning over personal information to the state. 

Del. Tran said the DMV has thousands of data-sharing agreements, increasing opportunities for undocumented immigrants to be outed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She said legislation passed last session addressed several privacy issues but there is more work to be done in 2021. 

“Right now, nobody can come in and do a bulk data request,” Tran said. “ICE can still come to the DMV and request data about a particular person.”

Tran is currently working on a bill that would limit ICE’s ability to obtain personal information from the DMV. She said the legislation wouldn’t ban data sharing altogether. Rather, it would set specific parameters for requesting information, such as if someone has committed a serious crime. 

“The privacy protections are currently strong and we hope to make them stronger in this upcoming session,” Tran said. “I think every single person will have to make an educated decision as to whether obtaining a driver privilege card right now is the best for them.”

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