Residents in Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens for more than a century, but Puerto Ricans escaping the devastation of Hurricane Maria are now realizing they are still treated differently in Nevada.
Nevada law requires anyone in the state to get a Nevada driver’s license within 30 days of becoming a legal resident. For those living in U.S states, transferring a license is as easy as showing proof of identity, residency, and a vision test.
But U.S. citizens moving to Nevada from Puerto Rico not only have to provide a list of official documents that DMV policy requires, but must also retake a vision, written, and driving test — tests other U.S citizens transferring licenses from out-of-state over the age of 21 are not required to take.
“Transferring a license from a U.S. territory is essentially the same as getting a drivers license for the first time,” said Kevin Malone, a DMV spokesman.
Milagros Lozada Rivera, 51, migrated from Puerto Rico to Las Vegas after escaping Hurricane Maria along with her partner Marisol Alvarez, 45.
When Rivera and Alvarez tried to transfer their Puerto Rico driver’s license to a Nevada license they were told they could not without passing all tests, despite the fact they had been driving for decades without any serious traffic violations.
“I’m a 52-year-old woman. I don’t think it’s right that I have to study all of this again because I’m from Puerto Rico,” Rivera said in Spanish. “We’re citizens of the United States.”
Alex Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nevada DMV, said information on licenses issued in U.S. territories are not available in the database the Nevada DMV uses, so the DMV can’t authenticate the validity of the license or any moving violations issued against it.
In most states, license transfers from U.S. territories do not require applicants to undergo what are essentially the same steps as first-time license seekers if they are U.S. citizens. Instead they are validated using various methods.
For example, in Arizona license transfers are visually inspected before license information is entered into the National Driver Register, a database with national information on individuals whose licenses have been revoked, suspended, canceled or denied or who have been convicted of serious traffic-related offenses.
Florida uses a database that connects to U.S. states and U.S. territories to verify the validity of a license. The DMV in Connecticut reaches out to Puerto Rico to verify licenses before transferring and Massachusetts allows those with Puerto Rico licenses to present a driving record to verify their licenses.
In these states and others, Puerto Rico residents who already possess a valid Puerto Rico driver license are not automatically required to take additional tests to get a state license like in Nevada.
According to data from the 2010 United States Census more than 20,000 Puerto Ricans live in Nevada, many of them foreign-born. In a study by Hunter University using data from FEMA, it was estimated that 31 to 69 Puerto Ricans evacuated to Clark County after Hurricane Maria.
Smith said she has started receiving calls from Puerto Rico residents upset about the difficulty of transferring licenses in Nevada.
“If we were ever approached about changing it we would do it but it would require legislation,” Smith said. “We’re basically just doing what we’re told here.”
Motorway signs and traffic lights in Puerto Rico are exactly the same as everywhere else in the U.S., and while some traffic laws differ, the same can be said of U.S. states.
Traffic laws vary greatly from state-to-state, even among states on the same coast. Turning right on a red arrow is legal in Oregon and Washington while the same action is not allowed in Nevada unless there is a sign explicitly allowing it. Texting and driving is illegal in Nevada but is not banned in the neighboring state of Arizona.
Rivera and Alvarez lived in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria first made landfall Sept. 20 as a strong Category 4 hurricane— two weeks after Hurricane Irma hit the islands before battering Florida.
Hurricane Maria devastated Yabucoa. Rivera and Alvarez recall falling asleep hungry and eating rations given out by the U.S military in the days after the hurricane. Stormwater flooded their home, carrying away and destroying furniture. They had to wash the few clothes they could save by hand in water polluted with debris from the hurricane.
In Puerto Rico, Rivera and Alvarez would wait in lines for hours trying to collect food, water, and gas. They would split up to maximize what they could bring home.
When they tried to leave the island in October, a month after Hurricane Maria tore through the island, the airport was still packed. Curious, Rivera asked people where they were going and was surprised by what people told her.
“They said ‘We’re going somewhere they’ll help us. Because no one is helping us here’,“ Rivera said. “At that moment I felt so many emotions. I asked myself ‘how am I going to get out of this’?”
Months after the hurricane, Rivera and Alvarez left for Las Vegas to stay with Alvarez’s sons once they were able to buy them both plane tickets.
Once Rivera landed in Las Vegas, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles was one of the first stops she made in an effort to establish herself. She said the difficulty in transferring a license may seem like a small issue to others but it is the first step in regaining her independence.
She failed the first test. Roughly half of all first-time test takers will not pass the written permit test on the first try, according to the Nevada DMV. Rivera said the stress of fleeing her home did not help. She hoped she could manage to at least transfer a license after the nightmare she had lived through.
Rivera said they drive with Puerto Rico licenses and hope for the best until they can pass all their tests and are receiving help from Make the Road Nevada, a local organization that works with immigrants to provide emergency relief services.
“I’ve been reborn,” Alvarez said in Spanish. “I’m like a baby who has to learn how to crawl again.”
Alvarez, who was employed by the Puerto Rico government before it downsized to the bare essentials, now works as a dishwasher. The language barrier and lack of employment support has forced her to find work wherever she can get it.
Both women would like to return to Puerto Rico but have decided to stay in order to earn enough money to pay for their home mortgage back in Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, many jobs were lost due to the destruction but debts back home must still be paid.
“I’m paying for a house I don’t live in,” Alvarez said. “If I didn’t have to pay for that house maybe we could go back.”
“We love Puerto Rico,” Rivera said. “My heart is there. I miss opening the window, feeling the sun. The warmth of home.”
The interviews with Milagros Lozada Rivera and Marisol Alvarez were translated from Spanish.