Randy Ludlow, Columbus Dispatch, September 13, 2009
A loophole in an Ohio policy allowed thousands of undocumented immigrants to register cars and get license plates even though many did not have valid Social Security numbers or car insurance.
The practice was so widespread that law officers in other states asked the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles why they were seeing so many undocumented immigrants driving cars registered in Ohio.
State Public Safety Director Henry Guzman delayed a proposed crackdown for more than a year after he met with people who cater to such immigrants, including people who were profiting from obtaining plates.
Guzman initially requested tougher regulations, describing them as vital to “the safety and security of all Ohioans from a Homeland Security perspective.” The regulations were to take effect on Aug. 1, 2008.
But he decided they needed more work after a July 31, 2008, meeting with dozens of mostly Latino business owners. The car dealers, financing and insurance-company officials, and others were worried about their bottom lines and undocumented workers’ ability to drive and support their families.
Officials say that, unknown to Guzman, present at the meeting were some “runners”–Latinos with legal U.S. residency who collected fees of more than $100 each from undocumented workers to register vehicles with falsified power-of-attorney forms.
Guzman’s planned two-week moratorium ultimately stretched to more than a year. The stricter regulations weren’t put in place until Aug. 24 this year.
Need for action
After Guzman delayed enacting the policy, records show that dozens of runners were obtaining ever-larger numbers of license plates for undocumented workers, particularly in Franklin County, and were shipping plates out of state.
U.S. postal inspectors and police in Hammonton, N.J., reported this year that packages of Ohio license plates were mailed regularly to that city and showed up on cars there. Checks showed the cars were registered to people with Latino surnames and Columbus addresses.
Guzman’s decision to change the policy was driven by “legitimate concerns,” said bureau spokeswoman Lindsay Komlanc.
“Director Guzman agreed to temporarily suspend the original verification policy to allow time for better understanding,” with the delay also identifying problems that needed to be corrected, she said.
Officials worried that the new process would be unwieldy and could harm the ability of auto dealers and others to easily obtain vehicle registrations, Komlanc said.
For example, a requirement that a photocopy of driver’s licenses or ID cards accompany power-of- attorney forms was dropped, she said.
For at least four years, BMV investigators have considered Ohio a haven for the registration of vehicles by illegal immigrants, both inside and outside the state, according to BMV records.
Ohio required only a Social Security number for a person to register a vehicle on behalf of another with a power-of-attorney form, and federal law prohibited the state from checking the numbers to verify identities, and thus U.S. residency.
In 2007, state lawmakers authorized using driver’s license or ID numbers to register vehicles in what was largely an identity-theft-protection move because people dislike turning over their Social Security numbers.
“This loophole has actually spawned a cottage industry wherein persons with acceptable identification charge exorbitant fees to obtain annual vehicle registrations for those who lack acceptable identification,” BMV investigator Tim Hughes wrote on May 4.
“Central Ohio has become an area of sanctuary where undocumented foreign nationals” can get license plates and often drive without insurance, he added.
Following Guzman’s moratorium on enforcing the tougher regulations, records show, he asked for a closer look at the problem.
In the following two weeks, 47 “runners” used power-of-attorney forms to register more than 600 vehicles in Franklin County, BMV investigators found.
Looking at a sample of 180 of the vehicles, the BMV could not confirm that even one registration was legitimate. Seventy-two registrations were “clearly fraudulent,” and the rest were questionable, investigators said.
“However, we were able to determine that, during the two-week period, one of the concerned ‘community representatives’ who had met with Director Guzman had grossed an estimated $16,000 in fees,” an investigator wrote.
Old policy defended
Early this year, an investigator who described the problem as negligible said criminal charges could not be pursued against “runners” or others with illegal plates. “The Columbus city prosecutor’s office has refused to accept criminal charges related to a statute that BMV has failed to implement,” he wrote.
Those who fraudulently register a vehicle can be charged with falsification, a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
More than 60,000 Ohio vehicle registrations do not have a Social Security number attached to them, raising the possibility that they are fraudulent. BMV officials cannot estimate how many are registered to illegal immigrants. Sources within the BMV suggest they account for most of that number.
Since registration procedures were toughened, Robledo says, his sales have dived. Runners are heading to states with looser regulations, such as Kentucky, to register cars, he said. Rather than use runners, Robledo said he would register vehicles for his customers for a fee of $10 to $15.
Undocumented workers should be allowed to register their vehicles, stay on the road and help support the American economy, Robledo said. “Who’s going to cook in the restaurants? Who’s going to be cutting the yards?”