In the United States, access to transportation is a form of freedom. Transportation allows people to travel to work and school, to the grocery store, to appointments with lawyers and doctors, and to other community and social activities. Access to transportation is a means to upward mobility and economic progress, but for many refugees and asylum seekers, transportation is inaccessible.
The majority of United States residents rely on the use of personal vehicles as their main form of transportation. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that 91% of adults in the U.S. commute to work using personal vehicles, whereas only 5% of adults nationwide commute to work regularly using public transit. This nationwide reliance on personal vehicle use as the main form of transportation presents specific barriers for asylum seekers, many of whom are unable to obtain driver’s licenses due to the lack of necessary legal documents, eligibility stipulations, and language barriers during driving tests.
Lack of Necessary Legal Documents
In order for a non-U.S. citizen to obtain a driver’s license in Alabama, they must have the following documents: A valid foreign passport with an acceptable visa or resident alien card; Social Security number verification * or letter from Social Security stating ineligibility; and one document from the “secondary” list authorizing presence in the U.S. for more than 160 days.
The “secondary” list contains the following documents: Employment authorization document with valid Social Security card; a valid visa (with supporting documents) authorizing presence in the United States for a period exceeding 160 days; a valid I-94 arrival/departure record issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; or an original I-797 (notice of action) issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, showing approval of change of status or extension of stay.
These requirements present barriers to asylum seekers on a number of accounts. Firstly, most of the documents on the “secondary” list are not applicable for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers do not come into the U.S. with a valid visa that would meet the requirements for obtaining a driver’s license, many of their I-94 cards do not reflect the proper immigration status for the requirements of a driver’s license, and they would not possess an I-797 until their asylum application is approved and they become an “asylee” instead of an “asylum seeker.”
Secondly, many asylum seekers in the U.S. do not arrive with foreign passports. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) explains that “refugees are persons fleeing persecution, conflict or violence in their country of origin, and therefore cannot, or cannot reasonably, approach the authorities of their countries of origin to obtain a passport, as this might put them at serious risk of harm.” Additionally, those who do attempt to apply for their foreign passports are met with difficulty finding transportation to the consulates in Atlanta and, if they do find transportation, long wait times for appointments. “We had a really difficult time making an appointment at the Honduran consulate,” said *Miguel. “We tried to make an appointment in April but they could not see us until August.” The risk and wait times associated with obtaining a passport makes it difficult for asylum seekers to fulfill even the most basic requirement in pursuit of a driver’s license.
Thirdly, per USCIS policy, most asylum seekers, except those admitted with a status called “Humanitarian Parole,” must wait 150 days after filing their asylum applications before they are eligible to apply for employment authorization. The current processing time for employment authorization (EAD) applications based on a pending asylum application currently ranges from 11.5 to 13.5 months. This processing time means that, at a minimum, asylum seekers must wait nearly a year before obtaining one of the documents necessary to apply for a driver’s license.
If an asylum seeker is fortunate enough to have all of the necessary documents required to obtain a driver’s license, there are still additional stipulations that are not well-communicated by administering agencies. One of these stipulations is that one must have 160 days remaining on their immigration status or other legal documents such as work permits to be eligible to apply for a license. “I passed both the written and operational driving tests in English,” explained *Daniel. “But after the test, they told me I needed a minimum of six months left on my work permit to get my license…I only had one month left. I applied to extend my work permit months ago but have not heard anything yet…I am still without a license.”
Another avenue to obtaining a driver's license in the United States is transferring an International Driving Permit (IDP) and a valid license from one’s home country to the new state of residence. The opportunity of this pathway is slim, however, because an IDP and license must have been administered by the asylum seeker’s home country before they arrived in the U.S. The United States does not issue IDPs to foreign visitors. As asylum seekers are fleeing their home countries to escape violence and persecution, most leave quickly and do not prioritize obtaining an IDP beforehand.
Language Barriers during Driving Tests
If an asylum seeker makes it to the testing phase of the application process, they may be presented with additional barriers. In Alabama, written examinations are available in Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai, and Vietnamese. Many asylum seekers, however, speak local dialects or other languages not represented in the list of available testing languages. Additionally, the road skills test takes place in the car with an examiner and is not required to be administered in any language other than English. This presents a challenge for asylum seekers if they do not understand English and are not able to effectively communicate with the examiners.
Breaking Down the Barriers
“I wish the transportation system in the U.S. was different,” said *Daniel. “Many people who come here know how to drive. They have talent. They should be given permission to drive if they knew how…If they could drive, they could contribute to their families, and to this country.”
ALIRP works to assist our Partners in overcoming the barriers associated with accessing transportation and obtaining their drivers’ licenses in various ways, including:
Seeking asylum in the U.S. is no easy feat, and those who take on the challenge show strength, bravery, and determination every step of the way. Show that you stand with asylum seekers in Birmingham and across the globe by joining ALIRP in our efforts to support them. To do so, consider volunteering your time, making a financial contribution, or sharing this article with a friend. Every action to remove barriers while seeking asylum is necessary, and we hope you will take action today.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of our Partners.
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Become a member of the Transit Citizens Advisory Board of the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority
Write to your Representatives and Congressmen to advocate for better public transportation in Alabama
Join the National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates to advocate for increased investment in Public Transportation