Clark County works to provide driving education for local Haitians

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Several Clark County government and nonprofit leaders are working together to better educate Springfield’s Haitian immigrant population on how to obtain driver’s licenses and the rules of the road.

Haitian immigrants in the area face challenges related to driving legally, including language barriers, a lack of resources describing the process available in Haitian Creole and significantly different driving conventions in Haiti vs. the United States.

Since a Haitian driver was involved in a school bus accident that killed an 11-year-old and injured dozens of other Northwestern students on Aug. 22, dozens of Springfielders have expressed concerns at city commission meetings regarding the recent influx of Haitian immigrants coming to the city.

Charges are pending against the unlicensed immigrant driver of the vehicle accused of crossing the center lane and causing the bus to overturn.

“We don’t want to point at one individual culture and say that they’re the cause for the world’s end,” Springfield Police Division Lt. Beau Collins said during a Haitian Coalition meeting on Wednesday that drew more than 60 people.

Thousands of Haitian immigrants have come to Springfield in recent years. Estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000 Haitians living in the city now.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The growing Haitian immigrant community in the city is stretching social service agencies, but the Haitians are also filling job openings at local companies and starting new businesses such as restaurants and a food truck, said Chris Cook, assistant health commissioner for the Clark County Combined Health District.

“These Haitians are anxious to work,” Cook said. “(Companies) love it that they show up to work every day, can pass a drug screen and are willing to work overtime and work hard.”

Human services, public health and non-profit social service agencies are assisting Haitian immigrants, who come to the region seeking jobs and affordable housing and to join family members who are already here, said Cook, who is co-chair of the Haitian Coalition formed in December to help coordinate the local assistance efforts.

“They contribute to the community and the economy,” said Casey Rollins, board president and executive director St. Vincent de Paul in Springfield. “They are not just asking for things. They are asking for opportunities.”

The faith-based non-profit volunteer group assists immigrants with work permits and legal work, and finding shelter, food and clothing, Rollins said.

Haitians in Springfield are now facing animosity from protesters questioning their presence in the city and workforce, as well as misinformation spreading on social media, particularly in the wake of the bus accident.

While some protesters claim the Haitians are here illegally, Rollins said that is generally not true.

Many Haitians are eligible for Temporary Protected Status, which allows them to live and work in the U.S. legally as their cases are pending or have been approved, said Kathleen Kersh, senior attorney at Advocates For Basic Legal Equality, who is assisting the Haitian immigrants.

Kersh said many Haitians also have pending petitions for asylum or other residency status.

Some immigrants have been the victims of hate crimes in Springfield. In August Izaye Eubanks, 22, of Springfield pleaded guilty in local and federal courts to crimes related to targeting and attacking at least eight Haitian nationals living in the city earlier this year.

The August bus accident that killed Aiden Clark raised questions in Springfield about some Haitian immigrants’ qualifications to drive.

How does an immigrant obtain a valid Ohio driver’s license?

According to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ website, immigrants with a permanent residence card — known as a green card — go through the same process as non-immigrant driver’s license applicants. They must present their green card, Social Security card if one was issued and proof of Ohio residency before they can take the test.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

More information on required documents is available on the BMV’s website. Jason Via, deputy director of public safety and operations in the Springfield city manager’s office, said the website is the best resource for Haitian immigrants because it has the most up-to-date and comprehensive information.

Via said the state has a desire to include Haitian Creole translation in addition to the French and Spanish it currently offers.

Those who have applied for or received asylum status can present an I-94 asylum document or receipt saying they’ve applied for it to receive a temporary state ID card, Johnson Salomon, a patient advocate at Rocking Horse Community Health Center, said during the Haitian Coalition meeting.

Salomon, a Haitian immigrant who has lived in the U.S. since 2020, said to obtain his driver’s license here he first submitted a receipt saying he had applied for Temporary Protected Status as well as his passport and I-94 document. He then took the temporary permit test followed by his driving test 30 days later, when he received his license.

Collins said there has been an issue with Haitian immigrants showing “international driver’s licenses,” which are invalid.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office warns that “there is no such thing” as this kind of license.

If an immigrant has a valid driver’s license from another country, it is valid in the U.S. and in Ohio. They can drive legally in the country and in Ohio for one year or until they establish residency. They must then obtain an Ohio — or other state in which they reside — driver’s license within 30 days.

During a road test, an interpreter is not allowed to be in the car, though they can be present during the temporary permit test, which is not a road test.

Driving in Haiti

According to Johns Hopkins University, driving in Haiti “must be undertaken with extreme caution.” There are few road or traffic signs or working lights, traffic is often congested and road conditions are poor.

Traffic rules are often ignored and unenforced, according to Johns Hopkins. Speeding and aggressive driving are the norm, drivers do not always follow right-side driving law, many cars do not have headlights or taillights, and abandoned vehicles blocking the flow of traffic are not uncommon.

Driving under the influence, while illegal, is common, according to the university. Speed limit signs are often missing, and many roads are unmarked.

Could the community provide driving education?

Salomon has proposed making a video in Creole to explain the licensing process to share among the Haitian immigrant community.

This would be circulated to both Springfield Haitian radio stations, on aid groups’ social media pages and potentially in lobby areas of nonprofits like Saint Vincent de Paul in Springfield if they can get a TV.

These kinds of videos can be helpful, which Alejandra Espino, who works for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said she saw play out when a client of hers learned how to drive via a YouTube video in Spanish. She said he passed his driving test because of the video.

The video could include recognizable faces from the Haitian community, like pastors and other community leader, Casey Rollins, director of Saint Vincent de Paul in Springfield, said.

With hundreds of Haitian immigrant students enrolling in Springfield City Schools in the last four years, Collins said teaching driver’s education in schools would be one of the most helpful solutions. Teens could then share what they’ve learned with their parents.

“It’s a trickle-down effect, except it goes up because they’ll take that home and will talk to the parents,” Collins said.

One group is not responsible for all crashes in Springfield

Collins said during the coalition meeting that since the school bus crash, many Springfielders have blamed Haitian immigrant drivers for recent crashes, but in his experience, the city has always had unlicensed drivers causing crashes.

Collins said there have been numerous accidents and unlicensed drivers on Bechtle Avenue and State Route 41 for years, preceding the influx of Haitian immigrants and an earlier Hispanic immigrant population. The state has funded SPD patrols in the area to ticket unsafe driving.

“For many years that was the highest accident (area) in the state of Ohio....” Collins said. “You talk to state troopers across the state of Ohio and you tell them you’re from Springfield, they all say the same thing: ‘Springfield can’t drive.’ And it’s that bad. I’m not exaggerating; it’s that bad.”

There does not appear to be an uptick in accidents recently, Collins said.

“The reality is this is not anything new,” Collins said.

Several fatal accidents in recent years have been the fault of natural-born citizens, Collins said.

“I’m not minimizing what happened; I’m just simply saying we have to keep in mind that we can’t allow one incident to dictate the narrative; it’s not true,” Collins said.

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