By Liz Oakes
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CARTHAGE - The 46-year-old Sharonville woman applied for a job, but because she didn't have a driver's license, she was turned down.
As a Mexican immigrant, Martha has been unable to get a driver's license under toughened state restrictions - such as proof of legal residence - enacted since 9-11, even though she's lived in Ohio for four years.
"I feel trapped," she said through an interpreter at Su Casa Hispanic Ministry, a nonprofit group that advocates for immigrant rights. Now, she avoids driving long distances and visiting friends, out of fear of being stopped by police.
A Guatemalan friend of hers was pulled over, and without a driver's license or a car title in his name, ended up spending three days in jail, losing his car and being fined $4,300, Martha says.
Today, she says, he's still not sure what he did wrong.
Those stories are not unusual and illustrate the need to better integrate Greater Cincinnati's booming Hispanic population, activists and social-service groups say.
On Saturday, about 75 people attended a seminar at Su Casa's headquarters to discuss the importance of addressing immigrant issues now, while the Hispanic population is still relatively small in Cincinnati.
According to census figures, the metropolitan region's Hispanic count totaled 22,488 in 2000, but local advocates think the actual number is closer to 50,000 and growing.
Last summer, Cincinnati City Council passed a resolution asking city departments to accept matricula consular cards as a valid form of identification that proponents say helps immigrants here open bank accounts and get services.
Four months later, however, Hispanics say the cards don't go far enough. For one thing, many police officers refuse to accept the cards, they say.
Su Casa has begun a campaign trying to convince state officials to allow some kind of permit so immigrants can drive legally to jobs and to get insurance. The group is lobbying in Columbus, and forming a local group for immigrants' rights, to begin meeting in February.
Such a permit would help all Ohioans, says Su Casa director Michael Flynn, because it would lessen the chance of untrained and uninsured drivers on the road.
Amnesty for undocumented immigrants, a possibility raised last week by Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, would help by allowing those here illegally to get licenses, as well as improve U.S. security by adding people into official databases, Flynn says.
But without immigration reform, limited amnesty won't solve the problem for those who arrive later, he says.
Su Casa gets calls from Blue Ash, Madeira, Mason and elsewhere, he says.
"You can't ignore this population because they will be your neighbors," Flynn says. "They already are."
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