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REAL ID Act leaving some legal immigrants feeling hopeless

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 3:50 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) 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.”

Utah adopted the federal REAL ID law in January 2010, and it's causing problems for people who immigrated to the United States on temporary visas. Under the law, they no longer qualify for drivers' licenses.  (Jen Pilgreen, Deseret News) Utah adopted the federal REAL ID law in January 2010, and it's causing problems for people who immigrated to the United States on temporary visas. Under the law, they no longer qualify for drivers' licenses. (Jen Pilgreen, Deseret News)

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.”

The Utah Driver License Division requires legal immigrants to provide one document from each of the following categories, in order to receive a limited-term driver’s license:

• Unexpired Employment Authorization Document (EAD)

• Unexpired foreign passport and unexpired visa

• Pending or approved application for refugee or asylee status

• Pending application for adjustment of status to legal permanent resident and U.S. Social Security card

The Blagas said they meet all of these requirements. However, because the REAL ID Act does not recognize legal immigrants with temporary visas, driver license staff, as well as applicants, are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“That means that our staff has had to come up to speed on what type of documents would establish what type of status,” Caras said, “and that's not something we've ever had to do before.”

Instead, Sorin Blaga said a supervisor at the West Valley Department of Motor Vehicles pressured them to apply for a driving privilege card. His son now has a driving privilege card, but Sorin and Mihaiela Blaga are leery to take that action because of the stigma tied to illegal immigrants here in Utah.

“It's an erroneous perception,” said Caras. “It’s an unfair categorization to say that holding a driving privilege card says that this person is in the state without legal presence.”

However, Caras admitted that Utah’s adoption of the REAL ID law seems to place some legal immigrants in a state of “limbo.”

“Since Utah’s law mirrors the REAL ID law, it puts them in an area where they don't really qualify for a regular Utah license," he said. "They also don't quality under the statute for a limited-term license.”

In the past, some Utah legislators have criticized the REAL ID law, stating that it would essentially violate citizens’ rights and privacy. Others complained it would inconvenience legal immigrants in an attempt to catch illegal immigrants. Some lawmakers see the law as a threat from the federal government that could affect identification documents that everyone needs in order to fly on commercial airlines, enter government buildings, open bank accounts and more.

Still, Caras said the Utah Driver License Division can only run documents through the verification system that's required by homeland security. “This is not an area that we're used (to), being pulled into the middle of immigration issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Blagas are concerned with their son being labeled as an illegal immigrant because he carries the driving privilege card. Caras recommends immigrants carry their legal immigration documents with them at all times, if they’re worried about operating a motor vehicle with a driving privilege card.

Sorin Blaga’s limited-term license will expire next month and his wife’s license will expire in 2012. They’re tired of the constant trips to attempt to renew their limited-term licenses. He feels hopeless.

“I have no idea what to do or how to solve this problem,” he said.

If you have questions or complaints about your local DMV, go to publicsafety.utah.gov/dld/

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