MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Vermont motor vehicle department gave federal officials information on immigrants living in the country illegally, documents show, giving life to longstanding fears that programs providing such immigrants with documentation could be used against them.
Copies of emails requested and recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show that investigators with the state Department of Motor Vehicles coordinated with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials last year to identify noncitizens.
Many of the emails show department investigators sent information to ICE on migrants they suspect gave false information on their applications for driver identification cards. The state’s card program was created in 2013 to provide immigrants living in the country illegally with a way to drive.
The ACLU asked for the records to ensure the motor vehicle department was complying with a settlement agreement reached last year in a discrimination case brought by a Jordanian man. The man had applied for a driver ID card, and state officials forwarded his information to federal immigration officials, who started deportation proceedings. He was briefly jailed and released after posting bail; he was ultimately not deported.
The department was ordered to pay $40,000 to the man and follow a Vermont policy that prohibits state officials from carrying out federal immigration policy.
“We wanted to see if the DMV was honoring that agreement,” said ACLU attorney Jay Diaz. “Unfortunately, these emails show that they were not.”
Vermont’s Seven Days newspaper first reported about the documents, which span from November 2015 to November 2016. And a report published by the news outlet VTDigger.org in October 2016 showed the motor vehicle department and ICE had been coordinating, similarly to what the newly released documents show, as early as 2014.
It’s unclear exactly how many immigrants were the subjects of communication, but a motor vehicle official said at a legislative hearing Tuesday that one investigator in southern Vermont had nearly 300 cases last year. It is also unclear whether anyone has been deported because of the communication.
Such cooperation between state officials and federal deportation agents has long been a fear of immigrants in the country illegally who apply for identification cards in places that allow for them.
The development is especially surprising in Vermont, a politically liberal state where even the Republican governor, Phil Scott, has acted intensively on behalf of immigrants. Scott last month enthusiastically signed a law that some critics said came close to making Vermont a “sanctuary state,” limiting the work police can do on behalf of the federal government.
He called it a response to federal overreach on immigration by the administration of President Donald Trump, a member of his own party.
Twelve other states and Washington, D.C., along with some municipalities, have some type of program allowing immigrants living in the country illegally to get some form of legal identification for such needs as driving or attending school.
In New York City, officials are considering destroying the information of people who apply for municipal ID cards out of fear their information will end up with federal immigration officials.
ICE spokesman Shaun Neudauer did not respond to requests for comment.
STAFF STILL BEING TRAINED
About 50,000 people in Vermont have driver ID cards, said motor vehicle Commissioner Robert Ide. The department is still training staff members on how to carry out the policy that prohibits state officials from carrying out immigration policy, Ide said.
Scott said at a news conference Thursday that he would “rectify the situation” but did not condemn the motor vehicle department.
The Senate Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on the matter Tuesday.
“Somebody comes in, applies, and a DMV employee takes it upon themselves to share that information, forward it to the feds. So walk me through, in a detailed way, is that practice still happening?” Sen. Chris Pearson, a member of the state’s Progressive Party, asked of motor vehicle Deputy Commissioner Jake Elovirta.
DMV officials don’t forward information to federal officials unless it’s part of a criminal investigation, Elovirta replied.
Enrique Balcazar, a Mexican immigrant living in Vermont illegally, said he has had a driver ID card since 2014. After reading the emails, he said through an interpreter that he wouldn’t be likely to apply if he had the choice now.
“It’s really sad the way that this law has been implemented,” said Balcazar, who was one of three immigrant activists in the state recently arrested by federal agents on immigration charges. His activist group, Migrant Justice, has said it believes his arrest was the result of his high profile, not communication between ICE and the Department of Motor Vehicles.