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Driving while illegal: Immigrants worry about being arrested and deported Sunday, August 19, 2007
Liz Mineo 508-626-3825 Metrowest Daily News


With photo of E. Santos, 27, drives without a license around Framingham.

On a recent afternoon E. Santos hopped behind the wheel of his SUV in the lot of his apartment building on Union Avenue, said a prayer for his safe return home, and drove off.

An illegal immigrant who drives without a valid driver's license, Santos puts his fate in God's hands every time he drives.  He makes the sign of the cross before he starts the car's engine.

A Brazilian man who agreed to be identified by his first name initial and last name, Santos, 27, knows well the risks he takes.  He can be stopped by the police and sent to court, but what he fears the most is that any encounter with the law can lead to deportation.

And yet he drives.

"I feel like a soldier who has been sent to war and is forced to kill people," said Santos, who drives with an expired Brazilian driver's license.  "I don't have a choice."

Illegal immigrants cannot obtain a Social Security number, the main requirement to apply for a Massachusetts driver's license.  According to the Pew Hispanic Center, between 150,000 to 250,000 illegal immigrants call Massachusetts home, and like Santos, many of them take the roads without a license.

In the three years Santos has lived in Framingham he has never been caught by the police, but he knows many fellow Brazilians who have.  On any given day, the courts across MetroWest and the Milford area are filled with immigrant men and women who are sent before a judge for driving without a license.  Many of them were stopped by the police after traffic violations.

Santos said he's extra careful when he's behind the wheel.  When he drives, he obeys traffic rules and never speeds, but he knows he's at fault: he drives with an expired Brazilian driver's license.

But when it comes to his car, he makes sure everything is in order.  The used SUV he bought for $4,000 is registered, has insurance and boasts a Massachusetts license plate and inspection sticker.

"It's one fewer problem if the police stop you," said Santos.

It's not uncommon among those who drive without a license to have insurance and their car registered, police said.  "It seems they often meet requirements for the vehicle, but not for the operation," said Framingham Police spokesman Lt.  Paul Shastany. "More often than not, they have registered and insured vehicles."

Insurance companies accept foreign driver's licenses to insure a car, but only for one year.  Restricted by that time line, many illegal immigrants have found away around it: every year, when the policy ends, they buy fake foreign driver's licenses with false names to secure insurance for their cars.

Or they resort to other immigrants who have driver's licenses and are willing to buy insurance for them and even register their cars for a "fee. " In Waltham, home to many Central American immigrants, community leader Paula Mendoza has noticed the trend.

"They're being taken advantage of," Mendoza said.  "There is a lot of corruption going on."

When Santos' insurance ended a year ago, his wife bought the insurance, but that policy is about to end in a few more weeks.  He's pondering what to do.

In the meantime, the former owner of a cell phone shop in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil restricts his driving as much as possible to reduce his chances of being stopped by police.

Two months ago, he moved to downtown Framingham, where he and his wife work.  When they lived on Whitney Street, he had to drive too many times per day: to go to work, take his wife to work and English lessons, pick their 7-year-old daughter up from school and drop her off at the baby sitter.

These days, he walks to work and so does his wife.  The only driving he does is to the baby sitter or his sister-in-law, who sometimes takes care of his daughter.

On a recent evening, after work, Santos drove along Hollis Street to pick his daughter up.  A reporter and a photographer from the Daily News rode along with him.  As Brazilian rock music wafted from the radio, Santos screened his surroundings, looking for police cruisers.

If he sees them, Santos struggles to remain calm.  Often he trembles and his hands begin to sweat.  His wife scolds him for being nervous, he said, but he can't help it.  Once, a police cruiser followed his car for a few blocks and he thought the moment he has long feared had arrived.  He saw himself being handcuffed and sent back to Brazil.  As he slowed down, the patrol car passed by him.

"They said, 'Men don't cry,' but that day I cried," he said.

Stress, anxiety and depression are common ailments among illegal immigrants, said Brazilian-born Percy Andreazi, a mental health counselor with a private practice in Framingham.

"I see it every day," he said.  "Ninety-percent of my clients live in fear because they are undocumented and are afraid of being deported.  They suffer from panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and all types of stress."

Santos also feels badly because he cannot please his daughter, who would like him to be on hand every time she performs at school.  Over the past three years, he only attended one performance, and he has never visited the school to talk to her teachers.

"There is a police patrol at the school," he said.

This summer, his daughter wanted to attend a summer camp in Holliston.  Santos had to say no because it would have meant more risks.  He avoids main roads and prefers back roads.  He stays away from the Mass. Pike and avoid trips to other states, where he could be stopped by state troopers, his worst fear.

When traveling outside the state, Santos goes with friends who have driver's licenses, but in general, he prefers to stay put.  Catering to those who want to travel without risks, some Brazilians who own vans offer trips to New York or across New England.

Driving with out-of-state licenses is also common among undocumented immigrants, but it's a temporary solution.

Still, some are making a brisk business out of driving people to Maryland, Maine, Tennessee or North Carolina, where a driver's license can be issued without a Social Security number.  In Framingham, Santos said, a Brazilian man drives people to Maine for a $1,500 fee.

Driving without a license is the biggest hurdle for illegal immigrants, so much so that Samuel Chaves, a Brazilian gospel singer who lives in Framingham, wrote a song about it.

In Milford, Brazilian pastor Gilson Jorge, hopes for a state measure that could alleviate the plight of many of his parishioners.

"If the government allows people who don't have Social Security numbers to pay taxes with an ITIN number, why can they give them a document to drive?," he said.  "People drive with fear and stress, and that stress can lead to accidents."

On that August afternoon, after Santos picked up his daughter, they came to his apartment and found dinner ready.  Before going to work, his wife had prepared rice, beans and meat, a typical Brazilian meal.  The girl turned on the television and started watching cartoons, and Santos began setting the table for dinner.  He felt safe at home.

"When I drive, I feel like an outlaw," he said in his native Portuguese. "Only when I get off the car, I feel relief."

Courts clogged with driving cases Sunday, August 19, 2007
Liz Mineo 508-626-3825 Metrowest Daily News


At the Framingham District Courthouse, almost every day of the week men and women show up to face charges related to driving without a license.

The majority are immigrants, and because many of them don't speak English, they rely on the court-appointed Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking interpreters.  Hearings are brief and end when the judge sets a fine, between $100 and $200, which can increase depending on additional charges filed by police.

Those charges can include failure to stop or yield, marked lanes violation, speeding or lacking inspection sticker.  Contrary to popular belief, very few are charged with driving without car insurance.  On Tuesday, of more than 20 people summoned to court for unlicensed operation, only two were facing charges of driving an uninsured or unregistered vehicle.

Some who are summoned to court don't show up because they fear deportation, but many do show up, pay the fine and go on with their lives.

Such was the case of Antonio Mayancela, 21, of Milford, who after paying a $235 fine for driving without a license and lacking the inspection sticker, planned to drive.  He said he had parked his car in downtown "far from the courthouse."

"How am I going to work?," he said outside the courthouse on a Tuesday morning.  "No one can drive me around."

Marcelo Nieves, 23, who hails from Brazil, planned to walk home.  Nieves had been to court four times, three for driving without a license and one for both unlicensed operation and leaving the scene of an accident.

"I'm not going to drive anymore," he said.

Later that Tuesday, an Ecuadorean man from Milford came to court to pick up a summons for driving without a license.  With the summons in his hand that orders him to show up in court Aug. 22, he left the courthouse, hopped into his gray pickup truck and drove off.

More Driving without licenses Sunday, Auguist 19, 2007
Liz Mineo 508-626-3825 Metrowest Daily News


Numbers of those driving without a license are on the rise across MetroWest and the Milford area, creating public safety concerns and burdening the courts and law enforcement agencies, police said.

In Milford, the number of offenses jumped from 40 in 2003 to 133 in 2007.  In Waltham, the number of arrests went up from 65 in 2002 to 87 in 2006; and in Framingham, the number of arrests increased from 104 in fiscal 2004 to 187 in fiscal 2006.

Local police departments worry about the growing numbers because it places a burden on traffic enforcement, said Marlborough Police Chief Mark Leonard.

"Our concern is that unlicensed operators shouldn't be driving because they may not know the rules of the road," said Leonard.  "When you have people driving without a license, there are no assurances they know the rules of the road.  It creates a safety concern."

The bulk of those arrested for driving without a license are illegal immigrants, and the fear of being arrested is making them leave the scene of accidents in large numbers.

"More people are leaving the scene of accidents," said Milford Police Chief Thomas O'Loughlin.  "But the fact they're unlicensed is not what caused the accident.  If they go through a red light, is that the cause of the accident?  No.  But are they driving unlawfully?  Yes."

The issue of granting illegal immigrants driver's licenses is divisive.  Immigrant advocates favor issuing a driver's license for illegal immigrants or a document that could allow them to drive.  Critics say that would be tantamount to rewarding those who have broken the law and oppose any type of initiative to grant them driver's licenses.

It's not uncommon that those arrested by the police for driving without a license ask for empathy, said Framingham Police spokesman Lt. Paul Shastany.

"Sometimes, they ask us, 'Don't you think we should have licenses?'," said Shastany.  "It's like a lamb asking a butcher for some advice.  We have to enforce the law."

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