Vitalina Bautista Vargas bids farewell to husband in court (courtesy Chattanooga Times Free Press)
WASHINGTON – Marcos Ramos Medina was driving his 1997 Chevrolet Lumina erratically, according to witnesses, swerving several times across the center line, causing a tractor-trailer rig to jackknife in Yakima, Wash., Aug. 4, 2005.
That was before his car plowed into the 2000 Lexus driven by Peggy Keller, 53, dean of distance education at Yakima Valley College, who was killed in the head-on crash.
Prosecutors in his vehicular homicide trial contended Medina was coming down from a methamphetamine high. When Russell T. “Todd” Sharpe, a six-year Washington State Patrol officer, testified that Medina fought against his restraints while being taken to the hospital for a blood alcohol test and refused to answer questions, the case against the Mexican national with a criminal record who had twice been deported was declared a mistrial because his constitutional right to remain silent had been violated.
“It pains me greatly, but in this case I must exercise an abundance of caution,” explained Judge James P. Hutton.
Little caution, critics say, is being exercised when it comes to preventing mayhem on America’s highways as the country witnesses record high numbers of unlicensed, unregistered, uninsured drivers – millions of whom are illegal aliens like Medina.
While no one – in or out of government – tracks traffic accidents caused by illegal aliens, the statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests many of last year’s 42,636 road deaths involved illegal aliens.
A report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Study found 20 percent of fatal accidents involve at least one driver who lacks a valid license. In California, another study showed that those who have never held a valid license are about five times more likely to be involved in a fatal road accident than licensed drivers.
Statistically, that makes them an even greater danger on the road than drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked – and nearly as dangerous as drunk drivers.
While police do not routinely ask drivers about their immigration status, New York’s Rockland County District Attorney Michael Bongiorno – who has prosecuted more than 20 felony cases this year involving people accused of both unlicensed driving and drunken driving – estimated that two-thirds of about 70 drivers charged in Spring Valley with misdemeanor counts of driving while intoxicated and unlicensed driving were illegal immigrants.
“Unfortunately, the undocumented drivers here do that (drive unlicensed) more than the natives,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Wendy Hahn. “If they’ve been involved in an incident, they flee because they don’t want to deal with immigration.”
Federal immigration officials typically do not get involved when an undocumented person is charged with drunken driving or driving without a license, said Bongiorno and police officials around the country.
While the Census Bureau estimates there are 9 million illegal aliens living in the U.S., other sources put the figure closer to 20 million. Running parallel to those estimates are the best guesses on the number of unlicensed motorists – 17 million.
In addition, the states with the most illegal aliens also have the most unlicensed drivers. Those states are also in the lead for the most hit-and-run accidents, according to reports issued by the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the Pew Hispanic Center. California ranks at the top with 24.1 percent of the known 11.1 million illegal aliens.
The proportion of unlicensed drivers varies widely state-by-state, with 6 percent in Maine and 23 percent in New Mexico.
Many of those advocating allowing illegal aliens to get driver’s licenses make the case by suggesting most unlicensed drivers are so because they cannot get a license.
In California, for instance, the Legislature is considering several proposals that would help illegal immigrants drive. One of them is a bill that would prevent police from seizing vehicles driven by unlicensed drivers. Senate Bill 626 by Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario, would apply to all drivers who have never obtained a California license. Opponents point out those favoring the bill are the same people promoting licenses for illegals.
‘Under current state law, police can seize vehicles for up to 30 days if the driver is unlicensed. Under the new bill, if the driver never had a license, the vehicle could be seized for only 24 hours; those who had licenses suspended or revoked would still have the vehicles impounded for up to 30 days.
Who are the people who have never had a license? Disproportionately, critics of the bill say, they are illegal immigrants.
In the Maryland Legislature, Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, is drafting legislation that would stiffen penalties for unlicensed drivers. His bill requires them to appear before a judge and would make them subject to up to 90 days in jail for a first offense and as much as a year for a second offense. In addition, cars belonging to unlicensed drivers could be impounded for up to a month or forfeited if they were involved in an accident that caused an injury.
Though there is absolutely no government data on the identity of Maryland’s unlicensed drivers – or those in any other state – Simmons’s bill has been attacked by immigrant rights’ activists, who say it targets Latinos.
Whether they are mostly illegal aliens or not, one thing is certain – there are more unlicensed drivers on the road than ever before. So prevalent is the trend that many police departments have cut back on sobriety checkpoints in favor of checkpoints to check the documentation of drivers.
A WND statistical study of police reports of dozens of such checkpoints around the country show that close to 10 percent of drivers stopped are either unlicensed or have suspended licenses. Even at sobriety checkpoints, far more drivers are found to be unlicensed than intoxicated.
While some say the answer to the illegal alien-unlicensed driver crisis is permitting illegals to get licensed, others say the solution is decreasing the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Rules determining who is eligible for a driver’s license vary by state. Eleven states do not require legal immigration status to obtain a license. The rest do require proof of legal status, either by state law or the documents required to apply. The eleven states are: Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. Tennessee and Utah have introduced a separate “certificate for driving” for state residents who cannot prove they are lawfully present in the United States. But Tennessee stopped issuing the certificates in February after reports that undocumented immigrants were coming from out of state and using false documents to apply.
The Real ID act, scheduled to take effect in 2008, will prohibit all states from issuing licenses to illegal aliens or the licenses will not be accepted as identification for federal purposes.
In addition to being unlicensed, most illegal alien drivers are uninsured – making the accidents they cause even more injurious. Statewide, more than one-third of California drivers are without insurance, according to the California Department of Insurance. In some low-income and minority neighborhoods, the rate is over 50 percent. In San Jose, for instance, 55 percent of all drivers on the road have no auto insurance. In some parts of Los Angeles, Imperial, San Diego and Alameda counties, the rate reaches as high as 90 percent.
The situation isn’t much better in other states with high populations of illegals. In Texas, 27 percent of drivers are uninsured. In Florida, the estimates are between 15 and 25 percent. In Colorado, 32 percent.
Even though citizens and legal residents are victimized by the high percentage of uninsured drivers, illegal aliens themselves are often immune to the pain.
Take the case of Victor Manuel Caballero. Even though he entered the country illegally from Mexico five years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that he could collect damages for being hurt in an auto accident from a special state fund set up to benefit those hurt in accidents with uninsured drivers.
Caballero would hitch a ride to his computer job with a co-worker, 19-year-old Ricardo Martinez. One morning, Martinez fell asleep at the wheel, veered off the road and struck a parked tractor trailer. Martinez walked away from the accident, but Caballero was badly hurt.
Surgeons repaired injuries to his abdomen and intestines over a week in the hospital at a cost of $38,300 in medical bills and $1,482 in lost wages. He had no medical insurance. The driver, Martinez was not only unregistered, he had no auto insurance. It turns out he was illegal, too.
The $38,300 in hospital bills was paid by a special hospital charity fund. And because of his successful lawsuit that went all the way to the state Supreme Court, Caballero was eligible for up to $15,000 for “pain and suffering.”
There are no official statistics about highway carnage and illegal aliens. But there is an increasing awareness among law enforcement officials – and victims of traffic accidents – that illegal aliens are playing a disproportionate role in the road mayhem.
Earlier this month, a court in Chattanooga, Tenn., heard the case of an illegal alien convicted of running her car into a house and killing a 91-year-old woman. A judge ordered Vitalina Bautista Vargas deported. Amazingly, the family of the victim remained compassionate and merciful.
“They wanted one of the conditions to be that she learn how to drive,” prosecutor Jay Wood said.
Prosecutor Wood said federal officials insisted that she be deported. He said as a convicted felon, she will not be allowed to apply to re-enter the country for at least 10 years.
Louella Winton, the victim, was asleep in her bed when the car crashed into her house. The vehicle knocked the victim through the bedroom wall and threw her against the wall of the house next door.
According to surveys conducted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Hispanics believe it takes 6-8 drinks to affect driving, while Americans, indoctrinated for years against drunk driving, believe it takes just 2-4 drinks.
In 2001, MADD reported 44.1 percent of California’s drunk driving arrests were of Hispanics, while, officially, they made up just 31.3 percent of the population.