This article by Bruce Parker originally published Jan. 22, 2015, on Watchdog.org. This is part 1 of the Drivers Licenses for Illegals Series.
As California battles a flood of immigrants seeking driver’s licenses after enactment of Assembly Bill 60, Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles has found issuing driver’s privileges to illegals can be a magnet for benefits fraud.
In the first week after AB 60 went into effect in January, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles issued more than 11,000 driver’s licenses and processed nearly 50,000 applications for people living illegally in the U.S. By the end of week two, the number of issued licenses more than doubled, reaching 25,300.
Over the next three years, Golden State taxpayers can expect to pay as much as $220 million to give licenses to 1.4 million undocumented immigrants.
Across the country in Vermont, a different problem has emerged. A law intended to grant driver’s privilege cards to roughly 3,000 migrants is attracting applications from illegals living outside the state.
“In our Bennington DMV office, we have detected some changes where people are coming from outside of Vermont and trying to get a driver’s privilege card. Our investigation has determined that they’re not residents of the state of Vermont,” Glen Button, director of the Department of Motor Vehicles Enforcement Division, told Vermont Watchdog.
As originally reported in the Brattleboro Reformer, the Department of Motor Vehicles recently discovered 130 invalid applications in its Bennington branch, in the southwest corner of the state bordering New York and Massachusetts.
“We’re still working our way through that, but it appears that a number of those applications were fraudulent, and we will be taking action to suspend those privilege cards,” Button said.
Vermont’s driver’s privilege card law, which went into effect at the start of 2014, created two types of credentials for drivers: Real ID-compliant licenses and driver’s privilege cards.
Whereas Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses offer robust identification benefits and are exclusively for individuals with lawful status in the United States, driver’s privilege cards pertain only to operating a vehicle and can be obtained by non-citizens.
According to the Vermont DMV website, residents may obtain driver’s privilege cards by verifying their identity and date of birth; Social Security number, or equivalent ineligibility letter from the Social Security Administration; and proof of Vermont residency and address.
Button said counter staff spotted a problem when multiple applicants began listing the same Vermont residential address on applications. When the individuals presented themselves in person to take tests, investigators learned they lived out of state. Some of the migrants reported paying $2,000 in New York City for help obtaining Vermont cards.
When asked why out-of-state immigrants were seeking Vermont driving credentials, Button replied, “Right now, the state of Vermont offers a driver’s privilege card and some of the surrounding states don’t. That could be one reason they come here to try to get it.”
Although the enforcement division is investigating other DMV branches, Button said the fraud was likely limited to the Bennington office.
“I think the Bennington office’s location, being on the border of Massachusetts and New York, is probably doing the traction for people in those jurisdictions to come to that office,” Button said.
Vermont is not the only state having problems.
According to a Jan. 2013 study report delivered to the House and Senate Committees on Transportation, many states experienced benefits fraud after issuing driving privileges to illegals.
Tennessee, which began offering driving certificates in 2004, repealed its law three years later after the new credential “led to an excess of fraudulent residence documents.” The certificate also became a de facto ID, despite lawmakers’ prohibition on such use.
In New Mexico, the state’s Hispanic governor sought to repeal the driving privilege law because officials claimed the effect of authorizing foreign national driver licenses “has been to facilitate criminal fraud.”
Officials in Washington state reported “a significant increase in the number of license applicants from states around the country” upon issuing licenses to non-citizens.
State Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, one of only two senators to vote against the driver’s privilege card bill, told Vermont Watchdog he wasn’t surprised by the out-of-state interest.
“Is anyone shocked that, because we opened the door wide to illegal activity, people that look for a way to beat the system are now taking full advantage of it?” McAllister said.
“You have to be completely out of touch with reality to think this was not going to happen. I am proud of my position on this. I just wonder how the people that voted for it feel now,” he added.
Vermont DMV Commissioner Robert Ide, who supported the bill, nevertheless told VTDigger in 2012 he had concerns about “migrant workers’ use of the Vermont ID in other states and for federal identification.” Those concerns got lost in the avalanche of support coming from migrant advocacy groups.
In recent weeks, those advocacy groups have accused Button’s enforcement team of entrapment for investigating false applications and referring perpetrators to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Button says the state is merely trying to enforce its laws through the proper channels.
“If someone may present a document from a foreign country … we very well may contact the federal authorities and say can you confirm the accuracy of this document and provide any other information. In those situations, they may come back and say the document is fraudulent; it shouldn’t be assigned to this person, that person is not in the United States legally, and deportation or further inquiry is warranted.”
When asked how many of the 130 known cases of fraud have been referred to ICE, Button answered, “We’re waiting for that. The reality is if people had obtained a document and they’re out of jurisdiction and we don’t know where they are, they’re probably not going to be referred to ICE. We’re just going to suspend the document and say it’s not valid anymore. We’re going to negate the document.”
Button said he was not surprised illegal immigrants paid thousands of dollars for help obtaining a Vermont driver’s privilege card.
“That driving credential can be a valuable commodity. It’s not uncommon for people to try to gain profit from getting a driving credential or getting someone else a driving credential. I’m not terribly surprised that there are people out there that would try to make a profit out of helping somebody perpetrate a fraud.”