Deaths fuel debate on driver’s licenses for immigrants

Alleged drunk driver who killed Village woman Thanksgiving night was illegal

Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006






Monday would have been Jennifer Bower’s 25th birthday. Instead, it was the Montgomery Village woman’s funeral.

Several dozen of Bower’s friends gathered in Rockville afterwards to remember and celebrate the Jennifer they knew as infectious and outgoing — and share the latest details of the car accident that took her life Thanksgiving night.

Bower was sitting in her car at a red light in Columbia when her car was hit by an alleged drunk driver, a man now known to be an illegal immigrant with a valid Maryland’s drivers license. Her passenger that night, who was also killed, was a 21-year-old U.S. Marine who had returned from war duty in Iraq that morning.

At their gathering Monday afternoon, Bower’s friends hashed over the media coverage of the accident.

Howard County police issued a statement that said the alleged drunk driver had a blood-alcohol level four times the legal limit. The Washington Post reported the man, Eduardo Morales-Soriano, 25, of Laurel had a previous drunk-driving charge that was dropped in February.

And The Baltimore Sun reported last week that Morales-Soriano is an illegal immigrant.

With the death of two people, particularly a Marine just returned from war, allegedly caused by an illegal immigrant with a valid driver’s license, blog debate on the Internet points to renewed questions over Maryland’s policy to allow illegal immigrants to obtain licenses.

But little has been said about Bower, who was on her second date with the Marine, Brian Mathews of Columbia.

A graduate of Watkins Mill High School and Hood College in Frederick, she was home for the holiday from Marymount University in Arlington, where she was pursuing a masters in community counseling. She was an intern at a halfway house working with addicts, according to her Internet profile on MySpace.com.

‘‘There is nothing better than the feeling of being able to help others,” she wrote on her profile, which now stands as monument of memories, well wishes, and goodbyes as her friends have posted more than 50 notes since Bower’s last log-in on Thanksgiving.

Bower’s family could not be reached for comment.

‘‘It kind of pisses you off,” said her friend Jeff Eggert of Damascus on Monday, adding that Morales-Soriano ‘‘ruined two very promising lives.”

Still, Eggert said ‘‘the fact that he’s illegal doesn’t really matter. There are immigrants that are illegal that don’t do that.”

Maryland’s debate

State lawmakers headed back to Annapolis after the holidays were already expecting to take up the state’s policy of allowing illegal immigrants to earn driver’s licenses, many have said.

‘‘I’m sure that this is going to be a major issue facing us in January,” said Del. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village. ‘‘... We’ve got to solve the problem somehow. We have an awful lot of illegal residents at this point — and we’ve got to deal with their needs, too — but we also have to respect the needs of the people who are doing this whole thing legally.”

Maryland legislators this session have to contend with the Real ID Act, a federal law passed in April 2005 that would force Maryland to abandon its policy of allowing illegal immigrants to obtain state licenses.

In 2003, Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran declared that the state cannot deny someone a license based solely on his or her inability to prove legal residence. A legislative task force in 2004 concurred.

However, states that fail to comply with the Real ID Act in the coming years could lose millions in federal funding. Those states’ driver’s licenses also would not be valid for federally-controlled actions like boarding airplanes.

Supporters of Maryland’s current license policy argue that because Morales-Soriano has a state license, authorities have been able to enforce the full extent of the law.

‘‘This case is an exact example of how it is better to know who some one is and where they live,” said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase, a member of the 2004 legislative task force.

Noting that the fate of Real ID itself is uncertain, she said that the circumstances of this one tragic accident must be kept separate from the state’s policy on driver’s licenses.

‘‘Making this a story about undocumented immigrants is an example of fanning the fear and scapegoating of immigrants,” she said. ‘‘It is time that we stop that.”

The ongoing process

The full-service Gaithersburg office of the Motor Vehicle Administration on Metropolitan Grove Road is one of 10 in the state that handles ‘‘out-of-country” applications.

For now, the lines of people — often a throng of 100 or more lining the sidewalk by 6 a.m. — that gathered at the Gaithersburg MVA every morning throughout the summer are gone. MVA reinstated an appointment-only process in September that had been used until last spring.

Once walk-ins were allowed, the number of out-of-country applications jumped from 900 a week to more than 2,000, said Buel Young, MVA spokesman.

Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group, entered the driver’s license fray two years ago, at first in response to community outcry over the difficulty of understanding the MVA process and the documentation it required.

‘‘Casa’s work on this issue is based on standing law in Maryland. If that’s something that there’s a change on, that’s the will of the state,” said Eliza Leighton of Casa. ‘‘But at this point, Casa feels very strongly that we should be supporting recent immigrants in obtaining all of their rights under existing law. And this is one of their rights.”

There have been complaints about the difficulty of the MVA process, with one tearful woman telling The Gazette in August that she had been turned down for a license based on her paperwork eight times.

MVA spokesman Young said the procedures and policies are clearly stated on the administration’s Web site.

‘‘Any individual that keeps coming back is not listening to what they need,” he said.

But Casa disagrees, and in November 2005 joined with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to sue the MVA on behalf of 13 people living in Maryland who were denied their licenses or permits.

The case is still pending.

‘‘It’s a huge public safety issue,” said Leighton. ‘‘We [need to] create a plan in which we’re not just de facto having tens of thousands of people driving around Maryland that aren’t licensed and that are uninsured.”

With Casa’s Executive Director Gustavo Torres on Governor-elect Martin O’Malley’s transitional team, Casa will push lawmakers toward an alternative it devised in October: keep the Maryland license as is and create an entirely new form of identification to comply with the REAL ID requirements, said Kim Propeack, Casa’s advocacy director.

‘‘We think that’s the most sound economic and structural solution,” Propeack said.

Can’t change the past

All of it does nothing to change the fate of Bower, Mathews or Morales-Soriano.

Morales-Soriano is being held in a Howard County jail on $830,000 bond, charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter, two counts of intoxicated manslaughter and one count of driving while intoxicated.

Police continue their investigation and a January court date has been set, but ‘‘the case will most likely be presented to the grand jury,” said Danielle Duclaux, Howard County’s senior assistant state’s attorney.

If so, the grand jury will decide Morales-Soriano charges; he could face more than 30 years in prison.

Federal immigration authorities have already filed an order to detain him, said Jim Dinkins, special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office. Once Morales-Soriano meets his obligations to the state, he will go before an immigration judge for deportation back to Mexico, he explained.

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