Auto registration checks scaring immigrants
By Stephanie Czekalinski
The Columbus Dispatch (OH), November 2, 2009
News that the state will cancel the car registrations of possibly thousands of undocumented immigrants has caused panic and created rumors among those living in central Ohio.
Before Aug. 24, a loophole in the state Bureau of Motor Vehicle's policy allowed illegal immigrants to register cars in their names by using a power-of-attorney form, even if they didn't have a driver's license.
The Ohio Department of Public Safety closed the loophole after delaying a crackdown on possibly fraudulent registrations for more than a year.
After The Dispatch reported on the delay, the bureau sent letters at the beginning of October to more than 47,000 people statewide whose vehicle registrations didn't list a Social Security number or Ohio driver's license or ID number. The state gave them until Dec. 9 to prove residency at a local BMV and pay $3.50 or have their registration canceled.
The change in policy was not aimed at a particular population, said BMV spokeswoman Lindsay Komlanc. 'We have a responsibility to confirm that every document we use is verifiable.'
Not everyone who received a letter was an immigrant, she added.
But the impact on undocumented immigrants and their families — many of whom are Latino — will be severe, said Julia Alachan, who came to Columbus from Honduras in 2000 and volunteers with local Latin soccer leagues.
Illegal immigrants, like many other central Ohio residents, rely on their cars to get to and from work and school, she said. 'It's not like in New York or Los Angeles where a bus is coming every four or five minutes. There isn't other transportation.'
Concern over the new policy has sown seeds of misinformation within a community already isolated by a language barrier, cultural differences and fear of deportation.
Rumors of immigration checkpoints on Sullivant and Cleveland avenues and raids at Easton Town Center and Polaris mall last month kept many undocumented immigrants home from work, Alachan said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement hasn't been at any of those locations, said Corey A. Price, ICE assistant field office director. 'ICE has never done checkpoints in Ohio. Our focus is criminals. If they are criminals, we are going to do everything we can to find them, detain them and remove them.'
Illegal immigrants risk deportation whenever they drive, but expired plates and stickers will make them more visible to police, who can pull over and ticket motorists without valid registration.
Although local police agencies do not have the power to enforce federal immigration law, they can arrest people who drive without a license or who can't provide valid identification. Undocumented immigrants typically do not have valid Ohio driver's licenses or IDs.
ICE agents regularly sweep county jails for illegal immigrants and deport them, according to an ICE spokesman.
Opponents of illegal immigration hope the new policy will make undocumented workers so uncomfortable that they'll move elsewhere.
'We want only legal immigrants in this country. And if they aren't legal, then they should go,' said Jerry Martin, chairman of the America First Party of Ohio, a 7-year-old political-action committee.
'I'm not an advocate of people breaking the law, but it's more complicated than that,' said Ana Perales-Lang, a Latino community volunteer. The policy directly affects the children of illegal immigrants and other family members, many of whom are legal residents or U.S. citizens, she said.
She also fears that bad people 'will take advantage of a desperate community.'
Word has spread that unscrupulous legal immigrants or citizens are charging as much as $500 to register people's cars in their name. Others have suggested that the state might accept the nine-digit federal tax number that allows illegal immigrants to pay income tax or that they might be able to register a car in the name of a business.
None of those options will work well, according to the BMV.
To register a car in someone else's name or in the name of a business, an illegal immigrant would have to sign the title over to that person or company, Komlanc said.
If the vehicle is not properly insured, the person on the title and registration could be financially responsible, she said, and the driver would have no legal proof that he bought the car if there were a dispute over ownership.
Also, the state does not accept federal tax-identification numbers, Komlanc said.
Some illegal immigrants are making plans to stop driving altogether; carpools are popping up, Perales-Lang said.
Others find it easier to abandon their lives here and head home.
'There are a lot of people along Sullivant who are buying tickets to go home,' Alachan said.
'They're saying, 'They don't want us. There's not a lot of work. I'm going to leave.' '