Sue Payne, the executive director of Maryland Citizens United, has taken photos of the lines at Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration in the early morning hours to show how many people show up to apply for a license. For several years, the administration has had to deal with a flood of dubious applicants.
Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, more and more states have been restricting driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. But in Hawaii, Washington, New Mexico and Maryland, immigrants can still get a license no matter their legal status.
And because Maryland is the only state east of the Rocky Mountains with this more lax law, it's become an enormous target for fraud.
For several years now, Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration has had to cope with a flood of dubious applicants.
"They would come in truckloads; there'd be pickup trucks that would have seven, eight, nine people in the back," says Sue Payne of Maryland Citizens First, which opposes licenses for illegal immigrants.
To document how bad the fraud is, Payne took to staking out MVA parking lots in the early morning hours, armed with her camera.
"They'd jump out of the pickup truck, the guy would come back, and we'd see the same truck coming all night long," Payne says. "And they were none of them tagged in Maryland. They were Virginia plates. We had New Jersey plates. We had Massachusetts plates, New York plates, Illinois plates, Missouri, Texas."
The long lines created havoc. So Maryland's motor vehicle administrator, John Kuo, started scheduling appointments with a special phone number for the high volume of foreign applicants.
"The first day that we actually rolled out the separate toll-free line for out-of-country appointment system, the telephone company actually contacted us and said, 'Something's not right here, because you're getting about over a million hits on your toll-free system,' " Kuo says.
The calls were coming from across the country. So the MVA restricted the number. Now, when people outside Maryland try to call for an appointment, they get a recording that says: "We're sorry. You have dialed a number which cannot be reached from your calling area."
Businesses Charge Hundreds For Help With Licenses
But the more sophisticated Maryland's anti-fraud effort has become, the more sophisticated its antagonists are.
The pages of local Spanish language newspapers are full of ads offering help in obtaining a Maryland driver's license. Kim Propeack, of CASA of Maryland, says a host of companies have cropped up, and they charge hundreds of dollars, depending on the service
"You can hire a company to get you an appointment; you can hire a company to help you translate; you can hire a company to do a bunch of these types of activities," Propeack says. "We believe that these companies have been real vectors of fraud."
Propeack supports licenses for Maryland's undocumented immigrants. But she suspects these license assistance companies are helping out-of-state applicants set up fake residencies.
In fact, state officials have found dozens of applicants using the same address. Propeack wants the state to go after these businesses.
But Kuo, the MVA administrator, says his agency has its hands full investigating hundreds of individual applicants a year.
"It's a very serious resource issue for us," Kuo says. "We only have a small unit that's dedicated to investigating fraud issues — it's only a unit of basically five individuals. And they are overloaded with fraud cases to investigate right now."
States Don't Recognize Maryland Licenses
For the third year in a row, Maryland Republican Delegate Ron George has introduced legislation to deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and lawmakers are considering a ban again.
George says it's even more vital now. Other states are beginning to comply with a federal law called Real ID that mandates stricter requirements for driver's licenses. That means Marylanders find their licenses weakened.
"Maryland driver's licenses currently are not recognized in states such as Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Oklahoma, because they know that we do not seek lawful presence," George says.
If Maryland does pass a ban, it wouldn't take effect for a few months. And that could cause an even bigger rush as immigrants across the region seek a driver's license before the cutoff.
But Kuo isn't worried. He says the state's overloaded appointment system is booked solid for months. Last-minute scammers would likely be out of luck.