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.
“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.”