An Oneonta woman renewing her driver license at her local DMV on Tuesday said she felt discriminated against after employees balked at processing her documents.
SUNY Oneonta Associate History Professor Mette Harder said she's a German citizen and a lawful permanent resident of the United States.
She came to the Oneonta DMV to apply for a REAL ID — a form of driver license, learner permit or non-driver ID which will be required to board a domestic flight or enter certain domestic buildings starting this October.
Harder said she was made to feel like an inconvenience because her REAL ID application would take longer than a citizen's would.
"It made me feel really unwelcome," Harder said. "But this has been my home for ten, 11 years and I've never experienced anything like that here."
Harder said she presented the proof of lawful status in the United States required for the REAL ID. She was told her documents needed to be faxed to Albany for verification, which staff told her would take "a really long time" to process.
DMV staff then resisted completing paperwork to send her documents to Albany and get the REAL ID process moving along, she said.
“She (DMV employee) basically refused to fill in the paperwork and at some point she pointed to the line behind me and said 'you'd be holding up all these people if you asked me to fill in the paperwork,'” Harder said.
Harder said when she addressed the people in line about how staff was refusing to help her, she was asked to leave.
"Everyone was kind of staring, it was a really awkward atmosphere," Harder said. "It's not my fault, but she was making me feel like it was."
Eventually, she said, staff filled out her paperwork and photocopied her documents. Harder said she has no idea when she'll get her new license. Staff told her it could take "three weeks or three days" for everything to be verified in Albany.
"We can't keep explaining Albany procedures," Oneonta DMV employee Barb Dulkis said to The Daily Star. "We have jobs to do. We can't keep stopping what we're doing."
Lisa Koumjian, assistant commissioner of communications for the state DMV, wrote in a Feb. 18 email to The Daily Star that federal regulations require all documents issued by the Department of Homeland Security be verified before issuing a REAL ID or Enhanced Driver License.
"Ms. Harder’s documents were verified and we will work with the County Clerk’s office to make sure her application is processed and she gets the fast and respectful service she deserves," Koumjian said.
Otsego County Clerk Kathy Sinnott Gardner, whose office oversees county DMV operations, did not return a phone call requesting comment by print deadline.
Above all, Harder said the situation made her feel unwelcome in a city she's lived in for at least 10 years.
"I kind of walked in there not expecting any difficulties," Harder said. "I think you don't expect it locally. This town feels a little bit more like a safe haven. I think it's why it felt so bad."
She noted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement tip line signs displayed in the office. Signs in the Oneonta DMV mentioning a state law allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses and learning permits were previously displayed next to signs with the tip line for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In early January, the signs were separated, though the ICE tip line signs remain in front windows.
"It just creates a very hateful atmosphere where people are asked to surveil, spy on and denounce their neighbors," Harder said. "Frankly, I also thought those signs were there to frighten and intimidate any non-citizen applying for REAL ID because they suggested we are being watched/surveilled while doing so."
Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.