A court settlement last fall required the Department of Motor Vehicles to stop passing along information about foreign nationals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But DMV “continued to collude” with ICE last year.
At a hearing in Senate Government Operations on Tuesday, top Department of Motor Vehicles officials took questions from lawmakers about interactions between department enforcement staff and federal immigration authorities.
The state passed a law in 2013 to establish a new driving credential that does not require proof of legal status in the United States. Designed to accommodate migrant farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, the driver’s privilege cards require only proof that the applicant is a Vermont resident.
But when immigrants sought the cards, DMV enforcement routinely contacted ICE as part of investigations.
In 2014, the Vermont Human Rights Commission sued DMV on behalf of a Jordanian national.
Abdel Rababah went to obtain a privilege card at the Dummerston DMV office in 2014. Subsequently, a DMV investigator alerted ICE officials that Rababah did not have legal status in the United States. Federal immigration then detained Rababah and initiated deportation hearings.
The Human Rights Commission case was settled last year. The settlement included guarantees that the DMV would alter practices and policies related to issuing driver privilege cards.
Emails obtained by VTDigger in October 2016 showed that contact between DMV investigators and ICE officials was frequent in the early implementation of the program.
More records, published last week in Seven Days, showed that communications between DMV and ICE employees continued through the end of 2016, after the settlement in Rababah’s case.
The emails show the relationship between DMV investigators and ICE officials was “informal and collegial,” American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont attorney Jay Diaz told lawmakers Tuesday.
Communications from 2016 show that DMV investigators “continued to collude” with ICE, even sharing applications with federal authorities, he said.
“That is not what you all envisioned when you passed the driver’s privilege card law,” Diaz said. “It was to protect people in this situation not allow them to be sent to ICE.”
DMV Commissioner Robert Ide acknowledged that the department has not completely implemented the terms of the Human Rights Commission settlement.
“It was an ambitious list of tasks,” he said. “I’m not saying that we are all done yet, but we certainly are on a course that charts us to that end point.”
The department is still training staff in the protocols, as required under the settlement.
Ide spoke to the panel along with Col. Jake Elovirta, director of enforcement at the DMV. Asked by one committee member about whether officers involved in communications with ICE had been disciplined, Ide responded that they prefer not to speak publicly about personnel matters.
“I would tell you that one of the officers was in the office last week, and he and Col. Elovirta had a closed door session that I’m sure was productive,” Ide said.
Lawmakers asked what penalties officers would face for improper communications with ICE.
Ide said communication with ICE would not be immediate grounds for dismissal, but supervisors would discuss the situation with the individual and would work with them to remedy it.
“It’s not fun to have to explain this type of behavior,” Ide said. “But behavior is what it is, and sometimes you have to.”
Sen. Chris Pearson, P-Chittenden, was a House member at the time the law was passed and recalled an “extensive” floor debate about sharing information of driver’s privilege card holders with federal authorities, he said.
Legislators were “trying to give these folks some freedom to move around Vermont where they live and work, and not dupe them into getting themselves in trouble with the feds,” Pearson said.
“What I’d like to hear is that the DMV is not taking any liberties with sharing people’s personal information because they’ve applied … for a driver privilege card and sharing it with the feds, except in the very narrowest of ways,” Pearson said.
“It is very narrow,” Elovirta responded.
Elovirta said that there have been a very small number of cases where the DMV has contacted ICE in the course of an investigation. DMV personnel would not reach out to federal authorities unless an application is flagged as suspicious and referred for investigation for potential fraud, the officials said.
Diaz and DMV officials acknowledged that fraud is a concern.
Newspaper ads ran in foreign language newspapers in metropolitan areas advertising opportunities for people without documentation to get a license in Vermont for a fee.
The DMV has conducted investigations into hundreds of potentially fraudulent applications, according to officials. In some cases the department has had several privilege card applications come from the same suspicious address, for instance.
“There is a lot of money to be made from fraud,” Elovirta said.
However, Diaz argued that investigators can seek to verify applications without contacting federal authorities.
“There’s no need to communicate with ICE regarding any applicant for a driver’s privilege card,” he said.