This article by Bruce Parker originally published Jan. 23, 2015, on Watchdog.org. This is part 2 of the Drivers Licenses for Illegals Series.
Vermont’s transportation secretary says she’s doing her job, but accusations from an outspoken immigrant rights activist have the transportation chief on the defensive over her investigation of illegals.
“We have 13 documented cases of people who live and work in Vermont being caught up in the DMV’s collaboration with ICE, resulting in irreversible damage to those people’s lives,” Migrant Justice’s Brendan O’Neill told Vermont Watchdog.
O’Neill, who helped convince lawmakers to pass a bill granting driver’s privilege cards to illegals in 2013, now claims a DMV investigation involving out-of-state illegals is harming innocent migrants.
“The irreversible damage is that people who have families and lives established in Vermont have spent months in jail and are in deportation proceedings because they went to get a license,” O’Neill said. “These are people who simply followed the proper and legal steps to get a Vermont driver’s license.”
Whether it was proper and legal for migrants to apply for Vermont’s driver’s privilege cards is under investigation.
This month, investigators at the Agency of Transportation Department of Motor Vehicles revealed that 130 applications at the Bennington DMV office were filled out using false address information. When the applicants arrived in person to take their driver’s tests, investigators learned many of the migrants were from out of state. Some applicants said they paid $2,000 in New York City for help obtaining the cards.
In collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officials at the Agency of Transportation are now looking into potential cases of document and benefits fraud.
“It’s our job to enforce the laws of the state, and that’s what we’re doing with the driver’s privilege card,” Sue Minter, secretary of the Agency of Transportation, told Vermont Watchdog.
“It’s relatively recent and confined to one area, and it has come to the attention of some of the counter staff. I think one in particular was with respect to an address being utilized on multiple occasions.”
In January 2014, Vermont began allowing noncitizen residents to obtain driver’s privilege cards. The cards, while nearly identical to Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses, are limited to operating a vehicle and have no additional identification benefits. Importantly, driver’s privilege cards are restricted to people who are residents of the state of Vermont.
While Minter said she is not aware of fraudulent activity occurring at other DMV branches, she said the investigation is ongoing.
“If anything suspicious comes along it is presented to our investigations unit. That’s what happened in this case, and that’s what will be happening elsewhere if anything of concern comes to our attention.”
Grant Spates, a construction contractor living in Derby, told Vermont Watchdog he observed something suspicious near the Newport DMV in the Northeast Kingdom.
“Two weeks ago, I was talking with the owner of an auto parts store in Newport, and a vehicle pulled in needing new wiper blades. It was out-of-state plates, I believe he said New York. The owner asked the well-dressed man driving what brought him up this way, and he said he had a carload of individuals going to the Newport office for driver’s licenses.”
Whether the activity is occurring at other DMV locations or not, O’Neill says Vermont has no business reporting migrants to the feds.
“If they determine that the application is not valid, the DMV needs to have a policy in place to deal with it. However, this policy should not and cannot include reporting the suspected person to ICE. They can deal with it at the state level the same way they have prior to this law being passed and need not involve federal agencies in the investigation,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill’s view may fail to account for the complex process of verifying information from noncitizens.
When noncitizens apply for a driver’s privilege card or a Real ID-compliant license in Vermont, applicants must prove their identity using consular identification cards, birth certificates, marriage licenses or other documents issued outside the United States. Such documents may not be verifiable using state systems alone.
In addition, Minter said some situations require states to turn over information to feds.
“There are instances when any information that is not accurate has to be turned over, with respect to when they’re applying for the regular driver’s license, the Real ID,” Minter said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates an identity and benefit fraud unitto crack down on people who exploit the immigration process. According to ICE’s website, the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force is a partnership between federal, state and local officials to investigate fraudulent activities. The unit offers a specific definition for benefit fraud:
“Benefit fraud is the willful misrepresentation of a material fact on a petition or application to gain an immigration benefit. Benefit fraud can be an extremely lucrative form of white-collar crime, often involving sophisticated schemes and multiple co-conspirators. These schemes can take years to investigate and prosecute.”
Unlike document fraud, which involves the manufacturing or counterfeiting of identity documents to circumvent immigration laws, benefit fraud involves the “misrepresentation or omission of facts on an application to obtain an immigration benefit one is not entitled to.”
Daniel Modricker, the regional spokesperson for ICE in the Northeast, told Vermont Watchdog he couldn’t comment on investigations in Vermont. However, he gave instances where ICE might coordinate with a state DMV.
“In general, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not use data from the Department of Motor Vehicles to identify immigration enforcement targets. But we, like any other law enforcement agency, use DMV data in support of ongoing criminal investigations, or to aid in locating individuals who pose a threat,” Modricker said.
Asked about ICE’s involvement with the Bennington DMV office, Modricker replied, “I don’t have any details on specific cases. It wouldn’t be our place to comment on ongoing investigations. So I couldn’t confirm whether there are or aren’t ongoing investigations.”
He added: “We as an agency take allegations of document fraud seriously and we’ll investigate leads that are brought to us.”
According to O’Neill, Migrant Justice wants the DMV to treat the applications as any other suspicious applications. He said it’s unfair to put immigrants in a situation where they have no legal rights.
For now, Migrant Justice is warning local immigrants to be selective about where they apply for driver’s cards.
“We are currently receiving calls from people living and working in Vermont who want a license. We are telling them not to go to the DMV in Bennington, Dummerston and Rutland, where there have been clear cases of the DMV turning license applicants over to ICE,” he said.
“The DMV’s actions are undermining the law we passed and making the DMV an unsafe place in the eyes of folks following the proper steps to get a license.”