ONLY RESIDENTS with lawful immigration status may apply for a Massachusetts driver’s license. Yet even immigrants who are lawfully present face problems verifying their immigration status to the satisfaction of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. The process the RMV uses to verify an applicant’s immigration status is fraught with frustration, delays, inconsistent results, multiple trips to RMV service centers, and gaps in license validity.

The RMV verifies status through web-based software called SAVE (Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements), at a cost of thousands of dollars each month. In theory, SAVE is an efficient method of verifying the immigration status of large numbers of applicants. Administered by the Department of Homeland Security, SAVE allows RMV clerks to enter identifiable information about the applicant and learn instantly whether the applicant has the required immigration status. If the system cannot automatically verify the applicant’s status, the case can be escalated for manual review. As an interface between the RMV and DHS, SAVE should eliminate the need for RMV clerks to interpret complex immigration documents, but the program often falls short of its promise.

Even though SAVE is a product of DHS, it struggles to discern eligibility in complex cases. For example, the spouse of a US citizen with a pending green card application, or an individual fleeing persecution with a pending asylum application, will often face challenges. These individuals are allowed to be in the U. and are entitled to a driver’s license under state law, yet SAVE is often unable to confirm their status automatically. The prescribed resolution to this problem – SAVE manual review – cannot always be requested by RMV clerks. And when a request for review is successful, it can delay the application process by weeks. Because of confusion about who qualifies for licenses, some applicants are turned away from RMV service centers even before a SAVE check is initiated.

Under the agreement in place between the RMV and DHS, the RMV must provide applicants whose status cannot be verified with an information sheet explaining how their record can be corrected “in a timely manner.” This information sheet is another triumph of theory over practice, however.  Foreign nationals are instructed to call customer service for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or book an in-person appointment. However, for the majority of applicants in this predicament, there is no error to correct in the DHS system. Rather, the problem is systemic: SAVE is ineffective, and is not equipped to process complex or nuanced forms of immigration status and present them to the RMV.

Until DHS overhauls SAVE, the RMV implements a different system to verify immigration status, or the immigration status requirement is removed, large numbers of people who are lawfully present will face an uphill battle when applying for a driver’s license. This is a detriment to all residents of the Commonwealth who are driving with unlicensed and uninsured operators on the roads.

Annelise Araujo is a partner at Araujo & Fisher, LLC in Boston and chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association New England.