Local beneficiaries of an immigration program whose future remains uncertain are facing a new concern: problems renewing their driver's license at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
The General Consul of El Salvador in Las Vegas, Tirso Sermeño, said Wednesday that his office has received several reports of people with legal residency under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program whose documentation was rejected when they went to the Nevada DMV to renew their driver's license.
"We have a problem here, and it’s very serious," Sermeño said during an interview for Cafecito with Luz and Michelle radio show.
DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said in an email Thursday that the problem is affecting TPS recipients from multiple countries and is playing out at licensing agencies across the U.S., although he did not have statistics on how many people have been affected so far. He said the issue emerged because the DMV verifies lawful status through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) System, used because of the complex requirements of the various programs conferring legal status.
The SAVE system is currently only showing the original date that the Trump administration prescribed TPS would be cancelled, rather than the fact that the cancellation has been suspended while the issue plays out in the courts, and Nevada DMV staff are unable to override that. For beneficiaries from El Salvador, legal status was set to expire in September 2019, at which time they would have had to return to their country or become undocumented in the U.S.
“Unfortunately, at this point there is no immediate solution,” Malone said. “We do sympathize with the affected residents and we do not just turn them away. They are eligible for Driver Authorization Cards and we encourage them to obtain one.”
He said the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency over the SAVE system, has pledged to upgrade the system and reflect the true expiration date for protections under TPS.
In early 2018, the federal government announced that the TPS program for El Salvador would end on September 9, 2018, saying that conditions had sufficiently improved in the country that the nearly 200,000 beneficiaries (who in turn have nearly 200,000 U.S. citizen children) could return home.
But last fall, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Network of Day Laborers Organizations, among others, filed the Ramos v. Nielsen lawsuit, leading to a court decision to prohibit the government's cancellation of the TPS program for Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador while the case is being resolved in court.
In compliance with a federal court mandate in March 2018, the DHS published a second notice in the Federal Register announcing it is automatically extending through January 2, 2020, the validity of TPS-related Employment Authorization Documents (EADs), Forms I-797, Notice of Action (Approval Notice), and Forms I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record.)
But Sermeño said that despite the DHS notification, the new automatic extension date of January 2, 2020, for the TPS program isn’t showing up in the system the DMV uses — meaning the legal status of the applicant can’t be verified.
"When they go to the DMV with a note stating they were sent in by them to renew their license, with their work permit, with a copy from the Federal Register, or the note we gave them, the DMV simply is refusing to process them," Sermeño said in Spanish.
The DMV is recommending that TPS beneficiaries request a Driver Authorization Card — issued to those who don’t qualify for a license or an ID card — but such a card can only be used to drive legally and is not valid for federal purposes such as boarding an aircraft. The card is also not valid to determine eligibility for state services, and private businesses have discretion on whether to accept it to, say, verify a person’s age to sell alcohol.
Sermeño said it’s the first time such a problem has occurred because TPS has not previously been subject to legal disputes like it is now.
USCIS points out that TPS beneficiaries who need to show their current legal status to obtain a driver's license or other benefits must have their alien registration number or I-94 number, which appears in several immigration documents, including the TPS.
The DMV states that as proof of identity, those who were born outside the United States and have an expired green card may file an I-797 Form in order to show an approved extension.
In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would cancel or give a final extension to the legal status for hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries of the TPS program from Yemen, Nepal, Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, leaving thousands of them at risk of deportation if Congress and the federal government fail to reach a permanent solution, which hasn’t happened so far.
If the court revokes the preliminary injunction in Ramos v. Nielsen injunction and that decision is final, the cancellation of TPS designations for these four countries will be in effect.
In mid-2018, TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador based in Maryland reported they were having trouble renewing their driver's license at the their state’s Motor Vehicle Administration, although that agency later said it was already taking care of those cases.
Sermeño said the consulate is in contact with the DMV, Gov. Steve Sisolak's office and Nevada’s congressional delegation, while the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington, D.C. is already in touch with the DHS.
"We have these two battlefronts," Sermeño said. "We are seeing how we can help our TPS beneficiaries to renew their license."
Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.