Cold as ICE: DMVs Working with Immigration Officials to Identify Undocumented Drivers

By: Bridget Clerkin March 12, 2018
The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is working with state DMVs to locate and deport undocumented immigrants.
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Maru Mora-Villalpando is an undocumented immigrant, but it was her pursuit of legal identification that ultimately led the authorities to her door.

After more than 22 years in the United States, the human rights activist is facing deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which tracked her down using information provided by the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL).

The government collaboration may reside in a moral gray area, but there’s no such ambiguity when it comes to the law: an executive order signed last year by Governor Jay Inslee banned Washington State agencies from sharing private details about undocumented persons with the federal authorities.

Still, an Associated Press investigation revealed that Washington’s DOL has been forwarding such data points to ICE upwards of 30 times a month, utilizing information collected through a state program allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses.

At least 11 other states have similar measures on the books, and the programs have already proven a boon to roadway safety—and a precious resource for revenue.

But even supporters of immigrant license initiatives have long feared situations like Mora-Villalpando’s could arise if the detailed applications fell into federal hands—and Washington may not be the only state passing on the information.

Safety & Savings

The concept of visa-free residents behind the wheel is not a new one in Washington—the state was the first in the nation to grant driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, enacting legislation in 1993 that would allow license applicants to submit alternate identification in lieu of a Social Security number.

Since then, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and the District of Colombia have joined the Evergreen State, while legislation is currently being discussed in New Jersey.

Aside from offering immigrants some form of identification, many of the programs focus on the concept of ensuring that everyone driving is playing by the rules of the road, with the pathway to a license seen as a mechanism to make sure those operating a vehicle have passed state-designed tests and are manning registered, insured cars.

A 2015 study conducted in California showed a 7% reduction in hit-and-run accidents there a year after the state granted more than 600,000 licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The hope of a more-documented road leading to a safer road has borne out in at least one case: A 2015 study conducted in California showed a 7% reduction in hit-and-run accidents there a year after the state granted more than 600,000 licenses to undocumented immigrants. (The decreased hit-and-run rate also subsequently saved Golden State residents a collective $3.5 million in out-of-pocket expenses related to the crashes.) The potential for harm on the road may be lower for everyone, but for the immigrants signing up for such programs, there’s still an outsized amount of risk involved.

Loose Lips

At least three of the states currently offering undocumented immigrant license opportunities admitted to the magazine Governing that they share information with ICE “on a case-by-case basis.”

Representatives from state licensing departments in Colorado, New Mexico, and Illinois told the publication that they will work with the federal agency only under certain circumstances, though requiring ICE to produce a warrant wasn’t one of them.

But an investigation by the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) found the issue goes even deeper in every state currently offering such initiatives.

The organization determined there’s no federal policy in place to dictate how or when ICE can obtain information from state licensing centers, and it does so often—in a myriad of ways.

The immigration agency regularly dips into databases maintained by state motor vehicle departments, as the information found there is believed to be the most reliable and up-to-date of any government stockpile of data.

Through these avenues, ICE has access to details procured from driver’s license applications, including any history of accidents or traffic offenses. Many DMVs also utilize facial recognition software, and this, too, is frequently used by ICE once the agency fixes in on a target.

It’s not unusual for the federal agents to work in tandem with DMV officials, as well. The state employees are often asked to “run” vehicles at certain addresses, in order to ascertain who lives there. And in some cases, ICE and DMVs have collaborated to lure certain individuals to licensing offices, where federal agents were standing by to arrest them once they arrived.

Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the NILC also revealed that ICE can collect data outside of this official structure through its field offices, called Enforcement and Removal Operations, which are free to keep in touch with DMV staff via e-mail and other forms of communication—as they did in Washington State, when Mura Mora-Villalpando caught their attention.

Ms. Mora-Villalpando Goes to Washington

Mora-Villalpando is a Mexican national who has led several protests against ICE and agencies like it, organizing demonstrations on behalf of immigrants being held at the privately-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.

Despite her long history opposing the authorities, she has no criminal record, but Mora-Villalpando claimed her lone legal record—her Washington driver’s license—and that was all ICE needed to initiate deportation proceedings.

In fact, Mora-Villalpando said she expected to be arrested after spearheading a protest in 2014 and speaking out about her illegal status to a local newspaper, but it wasn’t until last December that ICE came looking for her—just days after the Washington DOL shared her information with the federal agency, it was later revealed.

For their part, ICE officials claimed the pursuit wasn’t politically motivated and said they targeted Mora-Villalpando solely due to her immigration status. (Continuously living in the United States since 1996, she overstayed a visa that year after a change in the law would have kept her from returning to the country for over a decade, she told the AP.)

Regardless of the motivation, residents of the Evergreen State were furious over the DOL’s role in the situation, and have already called for the resignation of the department’s director, Pat Kohler, who only took over last month after the former head of the agency, Jeff DeVere, stepped down in the wake of the scandal.

Under Kohler’s leadership, the DOL has since promised it would no longer share information with ICE—even though it was already engaging in that practice illegally.

In the executive order Inslee signed to prevent such an information exchange, he outlined the numerous benefits of promoting immigration integration in the state, including the $2.4 billion in state and local taxes Washington reaped from their work in 2014 alone.

Yet the Washington governor’s views are largely contrary to those held by the leaders in Washington, D.C., a town that has increasingly emboldened agencies like ICE to take initiative in ridding the country of those here without a visa, at any cost. In many ways, the DOL—and its fellow state agencies—are at a crossroads, with only time able to tell which path down which they’ll help lead the country.

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