Lawmakers May Rethink License Laws
Undocumented residents worry that they'll lose newfound privileges.
By Rebekah Gleaves
Marie smiles now when she looks in her billfold. Last week, the Mexico native received her first Tennessee driver's license after years of driving without it.
In November 1999 the Flyer reported that a law passed with the intention of tracking down deadbeat dads using Social Security numbers was preventing Marie and other undocumented aliens from getting driver's licenses because they do not have Social Security numbers.
This all changed in May when a law was enacted by the state legislature allowing applicants to use government-issued identification numbers (such as a tax ID number) instead of a Social Security number to get a driver's license. Since then residents, primarily undocumented and illegal aliens, have flooded the testing centers. The unanticipated influx of applicants has caused the waiting lines to snake around the outsides of the buildings and forced all applicants to wait for hours on end.
"The administration of this bill has been disappointing," says state senator Jim Kyle, who sponsored the bill. "As far as I can tell, three things have gone wrong: One, the Department of Transportation miscalculated when they told us they could handle this. Two, we do not have a proof-of-residency requirement. And three, there's a lot more Hispanics in Tennessee than anyone thought."
Understandably frustrated by the long lines, constituents began complaining to their representatives. Now two new bills wait in the state legislature. One would modify the law currently in place and another would undo the first bill and revert to the old Social Security number system.
"I acted on this because of constituent outcry over the long lines," says Representative Donna Rowland, who sponsored a bill in the state House that would repeal the current law. "It's a disservice and an injustice to citizens."
Rowland says her constituents were upset that the lines were long because undocumented residents, some of them illegal aliens, could now get driver's licenses.
But Hispanic activists believe that changing the law back would be unfair to Hispanic residents in Tennessee, the state with the fastest- growing Hispanic population in the country.
"Community leaders have been fighting for this law for three years. Now they've only had it for a month and it could be taken away," says Celio Palacio, editor of El Horizonte, a Spanish-language newspaper in Memphis. "The long lines are only temporary because until recently foreigners have been denied licenses. After a while, the lines will not be as long."
Palacio's newspaper has published several articles and editorials on this issue and he says it is of primary concern to his readers, many of them illegal aliens who cannot get a Social Security number.
"I don't think the point is if they can get a Social Security number or not," says Palacio. "These people have to drive regardless. They have jobs and they have to get to work. Right now, if they have an accident there is no way to hold them responsible, they can just leave the scene. The benefit in this law is for everyone. If these people have licenses, they can be held responsible."
Palacio also says that a Social Security number is not necessary to get auto insurance. Rather, he says that most insurance companies and some banks will accept a W-7 tax ID number.
Rowland, however, contends that the old law was sufficient because applicants can apply for and get a Social Security number easily and quickly.
"If you are a legal resident with your INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] paperwork, you can receive your Social Security number within two weeks usually," she says.
Rowland's two-week estimate appears to be based on a best-case scenario. According to Bonnie Turner, district manager for the Social Security Department, two weeks is how long it takes for American-born applicants to get a Social Security number. "For foreign-born applicants," says Turner, "we usually have to wait to get their documentation from INS, and that usually takes a while, depending on how backed up INS is."
INS officials in the New Orleans office, which oversees the Memphis area, told the Flyer that currently there is a six-month waiting period for an applicant to be considered; after that the application must be approved and processed. Furthermore, INS prioritizes all applications based on certain criteria. If an applicant is seeking political asylum, is a refugee, or was forced from his or her homeland because of a natural disaster, they would be considered first. Also, if the applicant is related to a U.S. citizen, they are considered over an applicant who is not. Even then, there is an order of priority. For example, a spouse of a citizen is considered before the parent or guardian of a citizen.
Because of this backlog, Palacio says he knows of situations where residents have waited years to get a Social Security number.
"The benefit here is for everybody and the inconvenience is only temporary," says Palacio. "Just having better organization would fix this problem. They could have a line for international people and a line for citizens. And if more people are paying to get driver's licenses, then the department is taking in more money and can afford to hire more people to handle the crowds, or they could change their hours of operation. The hours now are difficult for everybody."
In a mid-sized city like Memphis with limited public transportation, an illegal alien like Marie still has to drive to clean houses for a living, take her children to school, and run errands. Here in Memphis, an area which INS officials say accounts for more activity with Mexican nationals than any other city in the region -- an area that includes all of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and part of Florida -- this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Currently, state representative Mike Turner has indefinitely delayed a vote on the bill he sponsored which would tighten the residency requirements for applicants without a Social Security number. Turner sponsored the bill in answer to assertions from Representative Rowland and Senator Marsha Blackburn that undocumented residents from other states were coming to Tennessee to get licenses, adding to the lines. Turner says he delayed voting because opponents to the original bill were trying to use his bill to repeal the law currently in place.
Buckle Up Or Pay Up
They say they just want to save lives.
Click It or Ticket, the Tennessee Department of Transportation program that debuted last month, is already making a comeback.
In connection with the initiative, Tennessee's law enforcement officers issued more than 30,000 citations statewide from May 21st to June 2nd.
Rick Casebeer, a spokesperson for the Governor's Highway Safety Office, says that the program developed out of a national initiative for the region. Combined, the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida account for 25 percent of the automobile fatalities and crashes in the United States each year.
During last month's program, local law enforcement and the Tennessee Highway Patrol gave out 33,073 citations statewide. With 10,759 citations, almost a third of the total, Shelby County drivers got more tickets than any other county. Hamilton County drivers got the second highest amount of citations: 3,826.
Asked why Shelby has a disproportionately large amount of violations, Officer Russell Duvall from the Shelby County Sheriff's Office Traffic Bureau says, "Probably more people around here don't wear their seat belts."
But according to a University of Tennessee transportation study conducted in 2000, Shelby County ranked second in seatbelt usage figures statewide. The state average fell from 61.1 percent to 58.9 percent; Shelby County was at 65.12 percent, only 0.88 percent behind top-ranking Knox County.
Out of Shelby's total citations in last month's program, about 5,000 were seatbelt violations; the others included non-moving violations, speeding tickets, and DUIs.
Duvall says that Shelby County roadblocks were not set up every day of the program, but that a few officers at a time would go out to a location and watch for people not wearing their seat belt.
"Seat belts do save lives," says Duvall. "I've seen a lot of critical, fatal accidents. In some of them, it didn't matter if they were wearing their seat belts or not. Some would've lived had they had their seat belt on.
"It's not to make money. It's not for revenue. It's just to save lives. We're not getting anything out of it," he continues.
The second round of Click It or Ticket started June 25th and runs until July 8th. -- Mary Cashiola
MLGW Wins Service Award
Last week at its annual conference, the American Public Power Association (APPA) awarded Memphis Light, Gas and Water the E.F. Scattergood System Achievement Award for the utility's "sustained achievement and customer service."
The award, which was also given to Murray, Utah's public utility, is named for the APPA's founder, and the recipients are chosen each year by a panel of judges who review information submitted by the utility. The utilities must apply to the APPA to be considered for the award.
According to Madalyn Cafruny, the APPA's director of communications, judges chose MLGW based on a survey conducted last year by J.D. Power and Associates that ranked MLGW number one in the South for community service and a survey conducted by MLGW stating that the utility had superior customer service.
MLGW has earned this award twice in the past, in 1959 and 1996. -- Rebekah Gleaves
No Tour de France For Local Viewers
Even though MemphiANS have ENJOYED it throughout the years, coverage of the Tour de France bicycle race won't be available on local television this July.
For the past year Outdoors Inc. owner and Memphis resident Joe Royer has been concerned with the television coverage (or lack thereof) of what he says is the largest sports event in the world. A cyclist himself, Royer read that the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) had bought the rights to the event last year.
Royer called Time Warner and learned the company does not carry OLN and therefore can't promise coverage of the Tour de France. However, Time Warner and OLN have been in negotiation, says Joe Williams, Time Warner's director of public affairs.
"For the last few months the negotiations have been hot and heavy," Williams says. "I have no speculation of when they will come to a close."
Williams says that a number of customers have called in with concerns much like Royer's. Still, that doesn't change his response: Time Warner cannot preempt the networks it carries.
"More plainly, we cannot cherry-pick programs from a channel that we don't already have," Williams says. "In fact, I would love to have it myself, even though I am not a great bike fan."
Time Warner's Mid-South division president Dean Deyo says OLN must make specific proposals concerning the Tour de France for Time Warner to carry only that one event. Both Williams and Deyo emphasized that the lack of this channel is not a matter of short-changing Memphis out of a major sporting event, but more of an incomplete business negotiation. There will still be limited coverage and updates daily on the news and sports cable channels such as ESPN. Full coverage can only be viewed from the Memphis area with a satellite system.
The Tour de France has become a more popular event in America in the last few years because U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong won the race in 1999 and 2000. Armstrong has battled cancer to become one of the world's greatest athletes. "[Armstrong] considers himself a cancer survivor, not an athlete," Royer says. "He is a success story that Americans are interested in."
Armstrong will be racing again on the U.S. Postal Service team in this year's 23-day race. The race begins July 7th and Armstrong's team is favored to win again this year. -- Hannah Walton
Does the "Info Hub" make sense in the Internet Age?
by John Branston
The "most public" building in Memphis isn't the airport or The Pyramid or even City Hall. It's the library.
The Memphis and Shelby County Public Library is actually a system of branch libraries and a main library, but the point is that more people of different ages and walks of life come through the doors of a library than any other public building.
So says Frank Ricks, whose architectural firm Looney Ricks Kiss is designing the new main library, or Info Hub, as it is called, at 3030 Poplar Avenue. Ricks, whose firm also designed AutoZone Park and other signature buildings, says the "most public" distinction was the guidepost in designing a user-friendly building.
"Other cities, including Nashville, have had design competitions to build their new libraries," he says. The unfortunate result: some neat buildings with impractical features such as too many entrances and third-floor children's rooms (meaning a hike upstairs or an elevator ride with the kids and strollers). One library built solid granite tables for its computers, leaving no flexibility for moving them around. Another built a sloping wall to the third floor patio outside the children's reading room before realizing it resembled a slide, forcing it to close the patio.
"The architectural challenge," Ricks says, "was to make everything as obvious as possible so that visitors could easily find their way around."
Once the doors open, the challenge will be to make the Info Hub relevant when an increasing number of area residents have Internet access at or near their homes and the county sprawls some 300 square miles to suburbs served by branch libraries. The architects came to the project in 1989, when the Internet was a strange idea. The location between a McDonald's and a strip shopping center was more or less dictated by a deal the city made a decade ago with AutoZone to buy its corporate headquarters, which was originally a 1970s department store. Ricks says he would have preferred a downtown site.
The glassy five-story structure that replaced the demolished AutoZone headquarters combines design with the lessons learned from watching how people use libraries. It has one entrance because multiple entrances tend to divide a building and require more staff. In general, the lower the floor, the greater the use and the shorter the stay. The first floor has the bestsellers, magazines and CDs, self-service checkout, children's room, coffee shop, and lounge. The fourth floor has the Memphis/Shelby County Room for history buffs and serious researchers. There is art throughout.
The new library will open either at the end of this year or early next year. Its total cost will exceed $60 million, but private sources are funding $20 million of that. Ricks says it will take four to six months just to move everything -- more than a million items -- from the current main library on Peabody.
That building, scheduled to be demolished, is an interesting study itself. It functions as a Midtown branch library, reference center, TV studio, after-school daycare center for nearby elementary schools, public computer center, and day shelter for men who fill the chairs in the magazine area, reading or snoozing.
Ricks said the new library will literally and symbolically bridge the wealthy Chickasaw Gardens neighborhood south of Poplar and the poor neighborhood north of Walnut Grove.
"Both the social and electronic needs of the patrons were considered by the design team," he says. "The facility is designed to be more like a community center and Internet café than the traditional reading-room-style library."
There will be 225 computer terminals, 2,026 seats throughout, and vanguard technology which will, of course, inevitably change.
"The central part of the building on three levels has access flooring through which cables can run so that as new technologies emerge, the library can adapt," says Ricks.
But can it also adapt to changing habits? The Info Hub's success will depend on finding a niche among far-flung self-contained suburbs, amazon.com, Blockbuster, cable television, and all the technology in the average middle-class home.