Monday, June 07, 2004 275,540 Social Security Numbers Stolen in NY

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Immigrant drivers nervous about their fake SS numbers
Monday, June 7, 2004 By John J. Goldman Los Angeles Times

MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Amid stained glass windows and flickering candles at the Church of St. Vito, the immigrants joined hands and prayed during a special mass for relief from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

In the last several weeks, the department has sent 275,540 letters to drivers who used Social Security numbers that did not match records of the U.S. Social Security Administration to obtain a license. The notices required motorists to reply within 15 days or risk revocation.

The action has caused anxiety among groups representing undocumented immigrants, many of whom entered the country illegally and provided false Social Security numbers so they could obtain the driver’s licenses that would allow them to find work. Many operate taxis and limousines or work in suburban landscaping businesses.

The New York Immigration Coalition estimates that about 200,000 motorists -- many of whom are undocumented -- risk having their licenses revoked. In the mid 1990s, providing a Social Security number was not mandatory to obtain a license in New York. As those licenses become due for renewal, the identification was required.

The controversy mirrors the debate over driver’s licenses being issued to undocumented immigrants in California. Soon after taking office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed a law that would have made it legal for them to obtain licenses.

A study by the Urban Institute estimates the nation has about 9.3 million undocumented immigrants, with about 26 percent living in California and about 8 percent in New York. About 6 million hold jobs.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, 40 states including New York, require that people applying for a driver’s license must prove they are legally in the country.

Ten states -- including Tennessee, New Mexico and Utah -- issue driver’s licenses to residents regardless of their immigration status, if identity can be proven.

“States very widely in their requirements. The bottom line is that it can be an incredibly complex system, and in some instances motor vehicle bureaus are being turned into quasi immigration agencies,” said Tyler Moran, a policy analyst for the Law Center.

“I got involved because the people came to me. They were nervous, upset, not knowing where to turn,” said the Rev. James Healy, who has served as St. Vito’s pastor for a dozen years and who helped organize the mass last week in the Westchester County community north of New York City.

“Their jobs were in peril. They don’t want to be arrested for driving without a license. It’s an extremely important issue. What we’re really talking about is something that’s interfering with the right that I think everybody has to earn a living and to support a family,” the priest said.

“When you’re impeded by not being able to get a license in an area that does not have public transportation, then that’s interfering with that right,” he contended.

In a front pew, Daniel Sanchez, who was among the 400 people attending the mass and who came to the United States from Mexico in 1989, said he lost his job driving for a limousine company when his license expired last month. He said he couldn’t renew it because he didn’t have a Social Security number.

“It’s a tough situation. It’s tough to find a job,” he said.

Seated in a center row, Nixon Barrios, who immigrated from Guatemala and said he works as a truck driver for a landscaping firm, expressed worry because his license is due for renewal.

New York State Motor vehicle officials stressed the review is necessary to weed out drivers whose licenses have been revoked or suspended and have obtained new ones by using false identification. In a case that was turned over to prosecutors, they said that 57 people were discovered using the same Social Security number.

Checks of 4,936,471 records so far have turned up drivers involved in credit scams, people delinquent in child support payments and have led to the discovery of document fraud rings.

“We have 20 million records in our files and we know a percentage of them are flawed,” said Raymond P. Martinez, New York’s Motor Vehicle Commissioner. “This is a valuable tool.”

Martinez said that after 9/11 the need to check driver’s licenses, which he described as “breeder documents” allowing people easily to obtain other identification, was obvious. The commissioner said some names that have turned up matched those on government watch lists.

The church service, which was conducted in Spanish, was part of an escalating campaign to convince Gov. George F. Pataki to eliminate a Social Security number as a mandatory requirement for obtaining a license. Plans exist for what advocates describe as a massive telephone call-in to the governor’s office and for caravans of cars in New York City to raise public awareness of the issue.

(Optional add end)

According to the National Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, 31 states are checking driver’s licenses with the Social Security Administration.

Armando E. Botello, a spokesman for California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, said 93 percent of the state’s database of over 23 million license holders so far has been verified, and that about 10 percent failed on the first attempt.

The vast majority turned out to be innocent mistakes, including typing errors, transposed numbers and name changes through marriage, he said.

Officials in New York State expect that they will also find many errors that can be readily explained.


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