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Driver's Licensing Processes May Put Undocumented People At Risk Of Deportation

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The idea is that roads are safer if drivers have passed a test, but the licensing process may put undocumented people at the risk of deportation, as John Dillon from Vermont Public Radio reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN DILLON, BYLINE: About 1,500 migrants, many from Mexico, work on Vermont dairy farms. So the Mexican government comes to the state a few times a year. This year, the mobile consulate set up the festival-like event in a church hall in Middlebury. The place was packed with farmworkers who came to get passport photos taken or just to hang out and eat takeout pizza or home-cooked tamales.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm just here for a little while. And I feel like I'm here to, like, eat something. And just, like, this is going to be my breakfast if I can get something here.

DILLON: This farm worker has been in the state's dairy industry for 14 years. He doesn't want his name used because he's in the country illegally. He does have a license to drive in Vermont. And that makes him worried because the state DMV has turned over information on workers like himself to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: People just going to think about more to try to get a license if the information goes to another place. You know what I mean?

DILLON: Farmworkers have filed a federal lawsuit citing internal emails and other communications that showed DMV employees sent license applications, car registrations and other information to ICE. In one email, a state worker passed along, quote, "south-of-the-border" names to ICE. In another email, ICE says a DMV worker should be recognized as an honorary agent. This kind of information sharing happens around the country, according to an investigation by the National Immigration Law Center. The pro-immigration nonprofit found that ICE accesses a private database of licenses and also gets more detailed information through relationships with DMV employees.

LIA ERNST: What DMV has been sharing are photos, all of the application materials, even going so far as to advise ICE of when people are coming in for appointments so that ICE can come in and detain them there.

DILLON: That's Lia Ernst with the Vermont chapter of the ACLU. Ernst says routine information sharing with ICE was supposed to stop after the ACLU won a settlement with the state's Human Rights Commission in 2016. But, she says, the practice has continued.

ENRIQUE BALCAZAR: (Through interpreter) I was arrested on March 17, 2017 around 4 p.m. in Burlington, Vt.

DILLON: Enrique Balcazar is a farmworker and a leader of a local group called Migrant Justice, speaking here through an interpreter. The lawsuit filed by farm workers says ICE targeted leaders of this organization with the DMV's help.

BALCAZAR: (Through interpreter) And when sending my information from DMV to ICE, a DMV official had written on it clearly that I was undocumented.

DILLON: Vermont's Republican governor, Phil Scott, says his office is investigating any cooperation between DMV employees and ICE.

PHIL SCOTT: It wasn't my understanding that anything was being forwarded that couldn't be forwarded. We're going to look into that, as well.

DILLON: An ICE spokesman said enforcement priorities are based on border security, public safety and terrorism. The spokesman declined to comment on the farmworker litigation, though he said the agency did not target people because of their political activism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: At the mobile consulate in Middlebury, another farmworker who is here illegally and asked to remain anonymous says his friends and co-workers are too afraid to go to the DMV.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Some people - they say, oh, no, I'm not going to get a license because my information maybe go to directly to the Border Patrol or any department.

DILLON: The farmworker drove down from near the Canadian border and says you need a car to get anywhere in Vermont. Now, he says, people may choose to stay on the farms or drive without a license. For NPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier. John was honored with two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards in 2007 for his reporting on VPR. He was the lead reporter for a VPR series on climate change that in 2008 won a national Edward R. Murrow award for continuing coverage. In 2009, John's coverage of an asbestos mine in northern Vermont was recognized with a regional investigative reporting award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

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