Massachusetts migrant advocacy group says Vermont DMV personnel may be tipping off immigration service

This article is by Robert Audette, of the Brattleboro Reformer, in which it was first published Friday, Jan. 9, 2015.

BRATTLEBORO — The state is investigating a rash of invalid applications for driver’s licenses at the Bennington Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Migrant workers hold up signs depicting Vermont driver's licenses at a bill-signing Wednesday in Montpelier that allows them to obtain "operator’s privilege cards" so they can drive in the state with or without documentation. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Migrant workers hold up signs depicting Vermont driver’s licenses at a bill-signing in June 2013 in Montpelier that allows them to obtain “operator’s privilege cards” so they can drive in the state with or without documentation. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

“Recently we had some applicants who came in for driver’s privilege cards and our counter staff recognized the addresses as invalid,” said Glen Button, the director of enforcement and safety for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. “About 130 people came through who were using addresses that weren’t valid.”

Button said state investigators spoke with about 15 of the applicants and learned that some of them said they had paid $2,000 in New York City for help in getting driver’s licenses in Vermont.

“These individuals came in and took the written test to get their permits,” said Button. “They were then scheduled to come in at another time to take the road test to prove they can drive safely.”

Upon their return for the driver test, they were met by investigators, which caused some concern in a migrant advocacy group in Massachusetts.

“We have learned that the Vermont DMV at certain locations … has engaged in a systematic effort to entrap undocumented driver license applicants,” stated an advisory to social service agencies in the Bay State. “In some circumstances, applicants have been paid a visit by immigration authorities at their homes three or four days after they had visited the DMV to apply for their license, leading to the suspicion that only the DMV could have tipped off immigration authorities.”

The advisory also noted that in some cases, Hispanic applicants were told that they would need to return the following day to apply for the license and when they returned the following day federal agents were waiting to take them into custody.

“There is a lot of speculation as to why certain DMV employees have suddenly taken immigration enforcement into their own hands,” stated the advisory. “One speculation is that the DMV … illegally colluded with immigration authorities to stem the flow of applicants from other states.

But Sue Minter, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation told the Reformer there has been no effort by VTrans or the DMV to turn over undocumented workers to federal agents.

“There has been no intent or design on the part of the DMV to entrap anyone,” said Minter. “We are very supportive of the driver’s privilege card program but at the same time we have a responsibility to make sure all applications are legal.”

Effective Jan. 1, 2014, Vermont has been complying with the federal REAL ID requirements.

To receive a full-fledge driver’s license in Vermont, applicants need to provide proof of identity, a birth certificate, documents that attest to lawful status in the United States, a Social Security number and a valid Vermont address. But applicants for a driver’s privilege card don’t have to prove they have a legal presence in the United States, though they do have to prove they live in Vermont.

While the privilege cards are being offered to undocumented residents in the state, they have also been issued to Vermont residents who prefer not to show additional forms of identification.

Brendan O’Neill, an organizer with Migrant Justice in Vermont, which was instrumental in the passage of the act authorizing privilege cards, told the Reformer that it appears someone in the DMV has collaborated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“In Bennington, Rutland and Dummerston we have learned of cases where people have been detained and are now in deportation proceedings,” he said. “These are people living and working in Vermont going through the appropriate channels who have wound up in the hands of ICE.”

O’Neill said he’s not sure if there are “bad apples” working in the three offices indicated or if there are more systemic problems in DMV.

Minter said the state will review what has been happening in the three offices to determine how best to continue to provide the driver’s privilege cards without “inadvertently referring undocumented Vermont residents to immigration officials.”

“We need to be very clear though. We have an obligation to enforce the laws. When someone fills out a form with information that is inaccurate, that is fraud and it is criminal.”

Button noted that in Vermont, many law enforcement agencies, including the DMV, have adopted bias-free policies that recommend police should not try to identify people whose only suspected violation is that they are present in the United States without proper documentation.

O’Neill noted that while the bias-free policy has been implemented by the DMV’s law enforcement division, counter staff are not subject to the policy.

“However, the law enforcement division have been involved on the ground in these cases and their collaboration with ICE would be suspicious. It’s not just a question of an incorrect implementation of the policy, but a violation of its own policing policy. If an ordinary white Vermonter commits residency fraud, do they call ICE?”

Representatives from Migrant Justice, which was instrumental in the passage of the act that authorized the driver’s privilege card, will be sitting down with members of the DMV to discuss the incidents, which O’Neill described as both “nuanced and outrageous.”

“We want to discuss why and how this is happening,” he said. “What is their explanation as to why these people have ended up in the hands of ICE.”

Billy Peard, a Massachusetts attorney who represents immigrant workers, said the driver’s privilege cards have been a boon to undocumented workers in Vermont.

“But I can think of no legitimate reason why the DMV ought to seek the deportation of license applicants in order to achieve their fraud-prevention goals,” said Peard. “If a license applicant doesn’t meet all the requirements to receive a license, simply deny their application. Don’t tear a person away from their family, their work, and their home.”

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  • jason Wells

    So now if an employee of the VTDMV reports a suspected crime to the proper authorities ICE, Customs etc. when presented with false documents etc they are “bad apples’?? What happened to the “See something say something” campaign?

    As for the Migrant center wanting to know how this happened I have a news flash for you. When these migrants illegally crossed our border or overstayed visas they became illegal aliens subject to arrest and deportation its really that simple. If they had followed the law and not brought false info to the DMV there never would have been an issue.

  • James Mason

    “…some of them said they had paid $2,000 in New York City for help in getting driver’s licenses in Vermont.”

    I don’t have an issue with the DMV pointing out obvious fraud in this case, especially when someone’s charging $2k for this fraud.

  • paul lutz

    This is insane

    Why are we giving illegal workers a drivers license again? Really, do legal citizens get to pick and chose what laws to follow??


  • rosemarie jackowski

    Very interesting article. In solidarity with the farmer workers, my drivers license is the same as theirs. It is from the Bennington office.

    Weird, recently I heard from the USA Dept of State, Office of Passport Services. They wanted to “interview” me and ask me questions. I ignored the letter. Then they started to call me on the phone. I politely told them I prefer to not answer any questions.

    I have had an ordinary drivers license since 1956. I was born in Pennsylvania. I have lived in the USA all my life, and in Bennington for 30 years. Are they planning on deporting me….

  • Cheryl Ganley

    “These are people living and working in Vermont going through the appropriate channels who have wound up in the hands of ICE.”

    If they had gone through the “appropriate channels” then they would not have ended up in the hands of ICE. They are here illegally that is why you are in ICE custody.

    “We need to be very clear though. We have an obligation to enforce the laws. When someone fills out a form with information that is inaccurate, that is fraud and it is criminal.”

    But being in the United States illegally isn’t???

    “We want to discuss why and how this is happening,” he said. “What is their explanation as to why these people have ended up in the hands of ICE.”

    Easy answer… They are here illegally.

    I am dumbfounded that this is even happening. We have immigration laws in this country and people think that we should just overlook them. In any other county in the world if you are there illegally you will be arrested and deported. Why is this such a difficult thing to understand. These illegal immigrants made a conscious effort to enter this country illegally. If they established families and employment (most likely under illegal means) then it is their fault that they are being torn “…away from their family, their work, and their home.” Those who came to this country legally should be outraged as well as feeling duped/swindled by the system. I just do not understand why there is even a debate about this situation.

  • Linda Baird-White

    It could be as simple as just a conman swindling money from individuals ignorant of our laws. But 130 that were discovered. That’s a big heads up. There’s probably more and the problems could be deeper.

    Verification of identification, such as a driver’s license (along with other forms of ID) could allow a person to obtain state funded services, state funded benefits, passports, voter rights, firearms and much more. That is very serious business.

    My guess is those individuals paid $2000 in cash in New York City to help or enable them to get a Vermont driver’s license, that means the alleged crime crossed a couple of state borders and that means the Feds could become involved through ICE and probably other federal bureaus as well depending on what they find out. If there was questioning or detainment, there were good reasons for doing so.

    I’m glad somebody’s on the ball and it also means we need a better system for proving identify.

  • George Cross

    Unless you grow all your own food or buy exclusively from Vermont CSAs, you had better like “undocumented workers”, because just about all of your food has been touched by one somewhere along the chain.

    • Jon Corrigan

      Despite the constant shrieking about ‘the saviors of our dairy industry’, I find nothing noble about those either breaking the law or enabling those who ignore our laws.

      • jason Wells

        Sorry George but a good number of the CSA’s use illegal alien labor already while still charging very high prices.

  • Peter Liston

    Exodus 22:21

    “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

  • ray giroux

    The Government keeps saying, “our immigration laws are broken, we need to fix them”.

    Must be someone dropped them or they got broken when they kicked them to the curb.

    But wait, the Dems are looking for voters, which States do you think all these illegals are going to flock to?

    Yes, you guessed it, Liberal Vermont, free handouts = more (illegal) D voters.

    I would not be surprised if they are all being registered as Dems.

    Obamas’ pen is mightier than the law –

    • Paul Richards

      ” “our immigration laws are broken, we need to fix them”.”
      It’s not the laws that are broken; it’s the lawmakers and enforcers that have broken the law by not enforcing the laws we have on the books. This has been going on for a long time but when you have people like eric holder and obama steering the ship we can all expect these illegals to be exploited by them in the name of votes. This just gives the government more and more power over us and steals our freedoms. The fundamental transformation is taking place at a rapid pace. At this rate, the country will be dissolved in no time.

  • Wendy Wilton

    Kudos to our state employees for following the law. I hope the administration continues to have the backbone to support them and the federal law.

  • Kathy Nelson

    I applaud the employees of the DMV for bringing this criminal activity to light and doing their jobs in a professional manner. It is a worry though that the current political conditions in Vermont are more conducive to turning a blind eye to the criminal presence and activities of illegal aliens than to appreciating the efforts of state employees that are doing their jobs. Well done DMV, and well done ICE.

  • Lisa Ravalese

    Wouldn’t ICE be tipped off simply by the fact that undocumented workers are applying for a driver’s privilege card rather than the standard license? Sure, a handful of Vermonters might opt for a driver’s privilege card to show their solidarity with the workers, but I’m sure they’re few and far between.

    What I find troubling is that the fraudulent applications were from out-of-state undocumented workers. Why would they need a Vermont driver’s license (privilege card) and how were they planning to use it? Could it be used to apply for social service benefits they aren’t entitled to receive? I have no idea, but it probably warrants further investigation.

    Also, now that this program has been in place for a while I’d like to see an article on the number of driver’s privilege cards that have been issued thus far. Has it been a few hundred or a thousand? Have they presented any problems for workers who have presented them during traffic stops? I haven’t seen an analysis either from the state government or a media source.

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