Emails show DMV fraud-fighting spilled over into immigration enforcement

drivers

Migrant workers hold up signs depicting Vermont driver’s licenses at the signing of a bill in 2013 allowing them to obtain credentials so they can drive in the state regardless of whether they are in the country legally. File photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

On Oct. 30, 2014, a Department of Motor Vehicles investigator sent an email to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer with information about several people who were applying for driver’s privilege cards, a form of identification that doesn’t require proof of legal presence in the United States.

“These are just in from the Bennington office. The testing representative says he’s getting slammed with illegals lately,” the DMV detective wrote.

He listed information on “three Hungarians” who he said came in at the same time with New York City cellphone numbers. “Just a heads up in case you’re looking for any of them,” the DMV investigator wrote.

The recipient responded less than 20 minutes later: “Thanks, Jon. That’s amazing. We’re going to have to make you an honorary ICE officer!”

The emails are part of a string of electronic communications in late 2014 and early 2015 that show DMV and immigration officials were in frequent contact in the period after the driver’s privilege card law took effect in January 2014.

The communications provide a window into DMV law enforcement at the time of a major policy shift and highlight thorny questions about enforcement of immigration law.

DMV officials say the contact with ICE came as the department was trying to stem a flow of hundreds of out-of-state applicants falsely claiming Vermont residence to get the new driving credential. The department’s procedure has changed and continues be refined, and investigators contact ICE only when other resources have been exhausted, they say.

But civil rights and migrant rights advocates say the emails show a close relationship between state and federal law enforcement agencies that blurred jurisdictions, set up applicants for arrest by immigration authorities, and infringed on the rights of immigrants.

Driver’s privilege cards

The introduction of driver’s privilege cards in early 2014 made it possible for people who live in Vermont but who are not legally in the United States to get identification and permission to drive. The result of a law signed in 2013, the initiative was aimed at increasing mobility for the estimated 1,500 immigrant workers on Vermont dairy farms.

However, many other Vermonters ended up opting for the card, which requires fewer documents than a license under the federally mandated REAL ID program. As of mid-September, more than 50,000 people held driver’s privilege cards, according to Capt. Drew Bloom, who heads the DMV’s investigations department.

DMV

The Department of Motor Vehicles in Montpelier. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Bloom said he doesn’t think the state anticipated the numbers of out-of-staters who would fraudulently try to get a driver’s privilege card. Ads in foreign language newspapers outside Vermont promoted the opportunity to come to Vermont to get a driver’s license, he said. The phenomenon taxed the resources of the small investigations team responsible for, among other things, looking into applications that appear suspicious.

Since the beginning of 2014, the unit has substantiated more than 350 applications where people have falsely claimed to live in Vermont to get a driving credential, according to Bloom. He did not know how many of those cases involved ICE.

“I think that had we known that this was going to become the beast that it became, with the volumes that we had, then there potentially could have been maybe some legislative fixes that helped us in the beginning,” he said.

The law requires applicants to provide two pieces of mail with one address to establish residency. In some cases, many people use the same address, renting an apartment for a short period, according to Bloom. Other times, they use addresses that are blatantly false.

The stream of suspicious applications continues, he said. In September he reviewed an application that gave a pizza restaurant as an address.

Bloom said contacting federal immigration officials was a tool for investigators trying to determine whether an application was fraudulent. ICE has expertise that the DMV simply doesn’t have, he said, and can better determine the validity of a document issued by a foreign government, like a passport (a requirement for the privilege card).

But activists and civil rights groups have questioned the DMV’s tactics.

Cooperation between the DMV and ICE, documented in emails, has raised questions of bias and discrimination toward driver’s privilege card applicants, getting a level of scrutiny that others don’t.

Last month, the DMV settled a Human Rights Commission case that involved a Jordanian man who was detained by federal immigration authorities after he applied for a driver’s privilege card.

Abdel Rababah went to get his driver’s privilege card from the Dummerston DMV in April 2014. An investigation found that a DMV worker made a mark on his application that made it appear he had claimed legal presence in the United States. But Rababah never made such a claim.

Rababah’s case was flagged to a DMV investigator, who reached out to ICE. The investigator set up an appointment for Rababah to come to the office to discuss some “discrepancies” and arranged for an ICE agent to be at the DMV at that time. Rababah was arrested, and deportation proceedings were initiated against him.

Advocates say the emails show that the factors contributing to Rababah’s case were far more widespread.

Communications between DMV and ICE

More than 50 pages of emails show that communications between DMV officials and ICE investigators were frequent and at times casual in 2014 and 2015.

Amid concerns that people were coming to Vermont from other states and lying about their residence to get driver’s privilege cards, DMV investigators sent ICE identifying information about some applicants, as well as information about when they were scheduled to come to DMV offices for appointments.

The emails show that DMV investigators were seeking out organized efforts to help people from out of state get driving credentials in Vermont.

One DMV detective, Jonathan Purdy, wrote to a colleague within the department on Nov. 7, 2014, that he had spoken with an ICE agent in St. Albans.

“He says ALL of these people are illegal (obviously) and they would like to pick them up. As it turns out, most if not all of these addresses used are bogus and these aliens cannot be found there. ICE is asking that we try to notify them prior to the actual test date for a license or permit. So I guess, if you schedule an alien, could you notify me and I’ll forward to them.”

That same day, Jason Brownfield of ICE wrote to Purdy:

“I think it will work best if we know ahead of time when they show up for their test and we will just arrest them in the parking lot and hopefully get one of them to talk. We will still check out those address(es) and hopefully get a prosecution case for you on the person orchestrating this mess.”

Later that month, on Nov. 21, ICE asked if there were appointments scheduled the following Monday or Tuesday, and the DMV investigator responded that he thought there may have been one or two, but that he didn’t expect the federal agents would want to make the trip without “something solid.” ICE encouraged him to send the names along: “never know what kind of fugitive criminal we might come across,” the ICE officer wrote.

On Nov. 28, ICE wrote to DMV asking what time three people were scheduled to be there the following Monday. The Motor Vehicles Department wrote back that two were scheduled for 8 a.m. and the third was later in the morning. On Nov. 30, ICE wrote back: “I will be there before 8 to get those Hungarians.”

On Dec. 1, 2014, DMV’s Purdy wrote to Mary McIntyre, southern team supervisor for the investigations division, that ICE relayed information from an interview with a Hungarian interpreter who reportedly admitted she took money from people to assist them in getting driving credentials. She reportedly rented an apartment in West Dover for a week to get a valid address.

The immigration agency told DMV investigators that the interpreter confessed to posting advertisements for the service in stores and on Facebook. She claimed she and a partner collected $1,000 per application.

Other people taken into ICE custody said in interviews that they each paid $500 for assistance in getting driving credentials, according to the emails.

On Dec. 4, Purdy asked another DMV employee to research what names were associated with a list of about 20 addresses around Vermont. The DMV employee wrote back, “Holy crap” with a smiley face. Purdy responded:

“Holy crap is right, we are being over run (sic) by immigrants.”

In February 2015, an employee at the DMV in Bennington wrote to Purdy that a woman had come into the office at Purdy’s request to drop off mail from the DMV that had been delivered to her address. She told the worker that her roommate let people use their address to get licenses.

The mail was addressed to nine different people, she said.

“What do you want me to do with them? I can send you a list of the names if you like but they are all ‘South of the Border’ recipients,” the DMV employee wrote.

Fraud and driver’s privilege cards

According to the DMV, if an applicant claims on the paperwork to be a citizen or to have documentation permitting residence in the United States, it is standard procedure to run that person’s identifying information through SAVE, a federal database that tracks citizens and people who are authorized to be in the country. If someone claims legal presence in the country but does not come up in SAVE, the DMV starts an investigation.

However, there are myriad other reasons that a case may come up for investigation, according to Bloom. If the DMV counter staff has a suspicion about any aspect of an application, including questions about the validity of the address an applicant gives, the case would be flagged to an investigator.

The change from the DMV’s previous policy that required applicants to have legal status in the United States was “very new territory for us,” Bloom said, and the department initially continued to investigate false statement cases the same way it did before the law changed in 2014.

Before the law changed, the DMV often worked with ICE on cases that involved people who did not have legal presence in the United States, because they weren’t eligible for any type of credential the DMV issues.

The emails were reviewed by the investigator for the Human Rights Commission review of the Rababah case. The report states that though the emails were about an investigation into suspected fraud, they “serve to underscore the closeness of the relationship between DMV and ICE.”

One detective interviewed for the Human Rights Commission investigation of Rababah’s case said he used ICE whenever anything seemed unusual on an application.

“Thus, as with the interface between cashiers and detectives, the interface between detectives and ICE officers is fluid,” the report states.

Emails show confusion among DMV staff about department policies on when to run SAVE checks. They also show confusion about whether there are any requirements for the two pieces of mail with a Vermont address that an applicant must provide — whether they needed to be something official, or if handwritten envelopes would suffice.

Bloom said in September that in some cases flagged as fraudulent, applicants would come in with two pieces of mail with addresses in the same handwriting. One envelope contained a child’s math homework, he said.

The department made efforts in 2014 to revise its policies. A Sept. 25 email from Bloom to McIntyre notifies her that she will be part of a working group rewriting the DMV’s 2005 policy for foreign applicants, which he calls “very outdated.”

Bloom told VTDigger that the DMV would reach out to ICE in investigations because its own law enforcement simply does not have the same expertise in identifying foreign documents.

“They’re charged with their mission — this is what they have to investigate. We’re charged with our mission. If there’s overlap there, then there was overlap there,” Bloom said.

Bloom said that although DMV did provide information to ICE, his department never explicitly asked ICE to come.

“It was always ICE’s decision as to whether or not they wanted to come to our office,” Bloom said.

ICE told VTDigger that it has no official relationship with the Vermont DMV.

“There is no official contract or other legal agreement between ICE and the state of Vermont to share driver’s license information concerning alleged illegal/undocumented aliens,” said a statement from Shawn Neudauer of the ICE press office. “ICE does not issue or validate state government documents in the United States.”

Neudauer said it’s possible a part of the agency that is responsible for investigating documents and benefits fraud could work with state law enforcement.

According to Bloom, people who put fraudulent information on DMV applications could face criminal penalties for making false statements or for using someone else’s identifying information.

Although DMV has identified at least 350 people it says fraudulently claimed Vermont residency, nobody has been prosecuted.

“We determined early on in most of these cases, these people don’t live here,” Bloom said. “So to even actually get an arrest warrant for them is problematic because they don’t live in Vermont.”

In some cases where fraud has been substantiated, the DMV has issued a civil ticket, which carries a fine of about $300 and a 60-day license suspension. Generally, the DMV just cancels the driver’s privilege card in the computer system and keeps the records on file, in case the person goes to a different office.

The DMV could not provide data on how many cases involved collaboration with ICE or how many resulted in deportation proceedings.

Bloom said it wasn’t possible to give data showing the number of cases of residency fraud in applications for driver’s privilege card compared with other types of driver’s licenses or identification.

The department also said it could not give data breaking down how many cases of privilege card residency fraud were substantiated each year, but Bloom said the number has decreased.

Rights of applicants

Jay Diaz, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said part of what is troubling is the DMV’s focus on “catching undocumented people coming to get the driver’s privilege card.”

Diaz represented Rababah in the Human Rights Commission case. He said DMV staff lacked sufficient training on how to deal with and investigate driver’s privilege card cases.

Jay Diaz

ACLU attorney Jay Diaz speaks to lawmakers last year. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

“The DMV had plenty of time to get their ducks in a row before the law went into effect, and the emails show that they just didn’t,” Diaz said.

Diaz said the emails appear to indicate the situation that occurred with Rababah was not isolated. It “seems like that was replicated many, many times over for many other people who did not get the chance to come forward and press their case,” Diaz said.

He said the issue raises questions about constitutional rights and the authority of police on immigration law.

“We have requirements of due process. We have requirements that local law enforcement not enforce civil immigration law,” Diaz said. The DMV, he said, appears to “short circuit” those.

The communications raise questions about the rights of people who applied for driving credentials and were detained by ICE.

Instead of following state law for penalizing applicants who make false statements — suspending that person’s license and issuing a civil ticket — the DMV was going after them based on violations of immigration law, Diaz said.

“Facilitating that arrest is the same thing as doing it,” he said.

Diaz also disputed the DMV’s assertion that investigators’ consultations with ICE were to gather information about applications suspected to be fraudulent.

“ICE is not a research tool,” Diaz said. “They’re a federal law enforcement agency.”

Meanwhile, the advocacy group Migrant Justice and others say the emails reveal bias among DMV employees in the early implementation of the law.

“DMV’s internal communications make clear the rampant discrimination against immigrant applicants following the passage of the driving privilege card law,” said Will Lambek, of Migrant Justice.

“State employees have a responsibility to enforce the law without discrimination, and these emails make clear that that’s not what was happening,” Lambek said.

He pointed to language and tone that DMV employees used in communicating with each other about driver’s privilege card applicants, such as one email from a DMV worker.

“You should have my schedule. … I have them all today, if they show up. Got one in front of me now!!!” the employee wrote.

Lambek raised questions about the DMV’s assertion of fraud.

Rababah’s Human Rights Commission case “is just the most public example that demonstrates that … the question of fraud is in many cases just a red herring,” Lambek said.

“It’s really clear in the emails exchanged between DMV employees as well as between the DMV and ICE that the target of their ire isn’t people who are suspected of fraud. It’s people who they think don’t belong in the state of Vermont,” Lambek said.

DMV officials strongly resisted allegations of bias among department staff.

“We don’t care what race you are, what sex you are, what your preferences are,” Bloom said. “Just don’t break the law.”

Changing policies for driver’s privilege cards

Migrant Justice says members of the organization have continued to face difficulties when going to the DMV through this year.

Enrique Balcazar, 23, of Burlington, says that when he went to the DMV in April to renew his driver’s privilege card, the process did not go smoothly. Lambek translated his comments from Spanish to English to provide the following account.

Migrant Justice

Migrant Justice activists Mitra Canedo, left, Enrique Balcazar and Abel Luna address reporters in Burlington in April. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Balcazar went to the DMV with Lambek, who acted as his interpreter. The woman at the counter told Balcazar that his information was not in the database and he would have to return with all his documents again.

It was not until a supervisor became involved, who coached the counter worker on privilege card policies, that Balcazar was able to renew his license.

Balcazar had the benefit of knowing the law well — in fact, he was involved in working with lawmakers when it was being written. He also had Lambek there to assist in translating. But both men worry what would happen if someone without those resources went to get ID.

“This is a law that people fought for and won, and what we’re seeing is a Vermont government agency not being trained or informed about their responsibilities under the law,” Balcazar said.

Bloom emphasized that in the time since the driver’s privilege card system took effect, the DMV has refined the process for investigating suspicions of residency fraud.

“The process has evolved quite a bit where now, we’re pretty gun shy about contacting the federal authorities because we don’t want to create turmoil,” Bloom said.

According to Bloom, investigators now contact ICE only when there is no other option for verifying someone’s identity. If an applicant moves to Vermont from another state, the DMV can call that state to verify the documents. That’s not the case if the person is from a foreign country.

“I have seen, as all of my staff have seen, the damage that can get caused that starts with getting a credential from a government agency and that can be pretty bad,” Bloom said.

Bloom said many DMV investigators who work on driver’s privilege card fraud cases are fed up. The cases are a drain on their time, he said, and there is an added level of stress because of the scrutiny the program is under.

“And it would be a real shame to let something get through because of being afraid to do our normal investigative process, and then, God forbid, that individual become the next person that puts a pressure cooker bomb somewhere, and that’s really our biggest concern,” Bloom said.

He said the DMV has refined the policies significantly and will continue to adjust them under the settlement of the Human Rights Commission case. One part of the 11-point agreement between Rababah and the DMV requires the department to establish a policy for processing driver’s privilege cards. Diaz said he has not yet seen a policy.

Col. Jake Elovirta of the DMV also said policies have changed.

“In the two years since the emails have been written, changes have been made at the DMV. Cultural diversity training has been presented to supervisors. They in turn have made their personnel aware of the department’s expectations that all customers be treated respectfully. Training will be continuing as we move forward,” Elovirta said.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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