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Wait for driver’s licenses not over for many undocumented immigrants: Brown

Updated: December 15, 2013 11:59AM



I don’t know what it is about the rollout of new government programs these days, but add the state’s new temporary driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants to the list of those causing frustration.

Immigrant support groups reported Wednesday they have been flooded with complaints from would-be applicants.

Thousands of individuals seeking the new Temporary Visitor Driver’s License s (TVDLs) haven’t been able to get through on either the Illinois Secretary of State’s website or designated phone number since the agency started making appointments Tuesday, advocates say.

Remind you of anything? Enrolling for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act or straightening out problems with the CTA’s Ventra card, for instance?

Secretary of State Jesse White probably will not approve of my comparison.

His spokesmen say the program is operating as planned with no computer glitches.

“I think we’re off to a very good start,” said his press secretary, David Druker, who said 4,200 individuals were signed up for appointments on opening day.

That filled all available time slots from Dec. 3 to Feb. 11 at the four Secretary of State facilities serving as a “pilot” for the licensing program, said Henry Haupt, his deputy.

But the view is decidedly different from the user side of the equation.

With an estimated 250,000 individuals in Illinois who could be eligible for the licenses, and many of them eager to get one, that means potentially tens of thousands have been met with telephone busy signals or a website they initially couldn’t access. Eventually that website informed them: “All available appointments are currently booked. Please try again the next business day.”

Julia Gonzalez, 32, an undocumented immigrant from Melrose Park, was among those stymied. “When I call, the line is busy every minute. When I go to the Internet, the page is closed,” she said. “For me, it is very, very sad. I wait a long time for this opportunity. We don’t have answers. A license is very, very important to me.”

Yesenia Sanchez, executive director of the West Suburban Action Project, said the lack of an explanation to those unable to make an appointment “is just creating a crisis, a commotion.”

“This is a classic case of demand overwhelming the supply,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which led the fight for the driver’s license law. “We’re incredibly concerned. It’s not as though they couldn’t see this coming.”

The Secretary of State’s spokesmen said they did see the large demand coming, which is why they adopted a start slow approach while working through the complexities of a program that has never been attempted in a state as large as Illinois.

That’s the main reason they are requiring applicants to make an appointment instead of just showing up at a driver’s license facility.

The four Secretary of State facilities conducting the pilot phase — two in Chicago and two Downstate — will be processing a combined total of 117 appointments per day, Haupt said.

Each day from now until mid-December, another 117 slots at a date 90 days in the future will come open, he said. By mid-December, the capacity will increase significantly when another 21 facilities will start taking appointments that will begin in January. By February, an additional 10 facilities will be processing TVDLs.

“I think people need to be patient on this,” Druker said.

I completely sympathize with White’s office for wanting to move deliberatively to make sure they get this right. The last thing we need is for this law to become some kind of scandal that could provide fodder for its detractors. But at this juncture, the odds of someone getting an appointment are practically the same as winning the lottery, and the Secretary of State hasn’t done anything to explain to would-be applicants what they’re up against.

Late Wednesday, after hearing my complaint, Haupt called back to say the criticism is fair and that the Secretary of State would post a more detailed explanation on its website of the limitations during the pilot phase.

“Hopefully, that will explain to people why they are unable to get through online,” he said.

I suspect the immigrant groups will be looking for a little more than that, such as the Secretary of State taking steps to process more people sooner.

I can be patient, but I’ve had my driver’s license for a long time.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST



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