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REAL ID Act leaving some legal immigrants feeling hopeless

Published: Saturday, Oct. 1 2011 11:30 p.m. MDT

Sorin Blaga, his wife and his son have lived in the United States for nearly 10 years. They had Utah drivers' license, but when Utah adopted the federal REAL ID law in January 2010, people like the Blagas, who have temporary visas, no longer qualify for drivers' licenses.

Jen Pilgreen, Deseret News

TAYLORSVILLE — Some of Utah's legal immigrants trying to renew their driver’s license are finding out they no longer meet the necessary requirements to keep that license in Utah.

Immigrants with temporary legal status are finding difficulties renewing their drivers' licenses since Utah adopted the federal REAL ID Act in January 2010. For some immigrants, the process is extremely inconvenient, confusing and frustrating.

Sorin Blaga is a Romanian native who legally immigrated to the United States on a work training visa in 2000.

“I was by myself here for a year and a half,” Blaga said. Two years later, he wanted to make the move permanent, "because I fell in love with this country, and I decided to bring my family here.”

He, along with his wife, Mihaiela, and their 22-year-old son, Alexandru, now have been living in Taylorsville for the past seven years. Sorin and his wife work as engineers for Salt Lake area companies.

They are “parole” status immigrants, which is a temporary and legal humanitarian status. In 2006, the Blagas began the process to become U.S. citizens. Today, they’re still waiting for their green cards — a decision from the federal government.

In Sorin Blaga’s eyes, he and his family have legal U.S. status, so he can’t understand why they’re having trouble renewing their Utah drivers' licenses.

“They require unexpired unemployment document, pending application for adjustment of status to legal permanent resident and Social Security (card),” he said. All of which they have.

Seven years ago, the Blagas received Utah drivers' licenses. But since 2009, they’ve experienced problems renewing those licenses and have since been issued limited-term licenses, which expire on the same date of an applicant’s immigration document. However, Sorin Blaga said now the Utah Driver License Division is telling them they don’t qualify for a limited-term license.

Mihaiela Blaga went to the immigration office for answers. “They said they cannot change the driving license law,” she said. “But from what they know, they should give us (a driver’s license) based on employment card authorization.”

The Blagas are not alone in this situation. In January 2010, Utah adopted the federal REAL ID law. People like the Blagas, who have temporary visas, no longer qualify for drivers' licenses. That change in the law is affecting students at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah and Weber State University. It's also affecting business owners who legally hire foreign workers, as well as victims of trafficking and other crimes who sought refuge in the United States.

According to the Utah Driver License Division, an employee will enter the immigrant’s document numbers and run it though the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program. It includes an alien, passport, or visa number. The system will return information about the applicant.

If the system considers the applicant “unsafe,” as it appeared for the Blagas, then the employee is supposed to run a secondary check, which could require additional days and documents.

University representatives who work with international students, along with the Blagas, said this process is not happening at some DMV locations. They say they have heard of cases where certain driver's license locations around the valley would reject applications from some students. But then they'd go to other locations and were able to renew their driver's licenses.

“The problem really goes back to when the REAL ID statute was put in place on a federal level,” said Chris Caras, Driver Services bureau chief with the Utah Department of Public Safety. “It’s been a painful learning curve for some of our staff as well as applicants.”

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