Vermont officials say immigrants living in the state illegally don’t need to worry that information they gave the Department of Motor Vehicles to get “driver's privilege cards” will cause trouble with federal immigration authorities. But privacy advocates are looking to the state to implement more protections.
President-elect Donald Trump has promised to deport millions of people living in the United States without proper documentation, spurring fears among immigrant communities.
The government of New York City has a system that allows immigrants to get identification cards even without proof of legal residency in the United States. The Associated Press reports that the city may opt to delete the data collected from New Yorkers in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of federal authorities working for Trump.
Other states with “driver privilege card” programs similar to Vermont’s now face the question of how to handle the data they’ve collected about people who may be in the country illegally. In Vermont, officials say the data in the state’s possession doesn’t pose much of a risk to immigrants who may not have legal residency status.
Michael Smith, the director of operations at the Vermont DMV, says part of the reason that Vermont’s data doesn’t threaten immigrants without legal documentation is because U.S. citizens and other legal residents can also have the driver’s privilege card instead of a traditional driver’s license that is compliant with the federal RealID standards.
“The driver privilege cards are issued to applicants that are unable to provide proof of legal presence or … don’t want to turn [proof of legal presence] over to motor vehicles,” he said.
In some cases, Smith said, the privilege cards were issued to Vermonters with legal residency status made it to the front of the line at the DMV and were told they didn’t have all of the requisite identification documents for a traditional driver’s license.
“They end up just saying, ‘You know what? I don’t really need it that bad, just give me the driver privilege card so I can continue to drive,’” Smith said. “Some of them have passports that would allow you to get on planes and cross borders and stuff like that, so they don’t really need a Real ID credential. So some are just making the choice based on the fact that, ‘Well, I didn’t bring the right documents.’”
Because the state doesn’t store its data in a way that makes it possible to filter out only legal residents, Smith says the result is that the state’s database wouldn’t be very useful to federal authorities hoping to locate immigrants in the country illegally.
That’s not an accident.
“The original legislative intent of this process was so that somebody wouldn’t be able to come here – namely a federal agency – and say, ‘Give me a print out of every individual that is undocumented,’” Smith said. “We do not store that on our computer system. It would have to be a manual process.”
Any manual process would have to go through a lot of records. Smith says that since Vermont established the driver’s privilege card program in January 2014, the state has issued 401,424 Real ID-compliant identification cards and driver’s licenses (which are only available to people with legal residency status) and an additional 51,904 privilege cards.
There are still questions about interactions between DMV officials and federal immigration authorities. VTDigger reported on a case in which a DMV official personally emailed federal immigration authorities to tip them off about certain people applying for driver’s privilege cards.
DMV staff also worked with immigration authorities to facilitate the arrest of a Jordanian man, which led to a $40,000 settlement with the man and new training protocols to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Jay Diaz, a staff attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ACLU is pushing for more assurance from state officials that information shared with the DMV will be kept confidential. He said that confidentiality is especially important since the election of Trump, who promised to ramp up deportation efforts.
"I think everything is on the table at this time, and so we need to batten down the hatches and tighten up our protections for vulnerable populations in Vermont," Diaz said. "So we remain concerned about this, and hope the DMV and Vermont as a whole will take action to protect the people who live here and work here."
One issue, Diaz says, is that it's unclear how the DMV interacts with the data it collects.
"The system is opaque," he said. "We don't know what information they have, whether they have lists, whether they are keeping copies of applications that discuss people's legal presence [in the U.S.], we don't know whether they're handing over bulk information to federal authorities, so we're hopeful to gain more answers in the coming weeks and months, before the Trump administration enters into office hopefully."
The state legislature could take action to create new privacy protections, but Diaz said the DMV could also act alone.
"They could destroy the applications after a certain amount of time, they could not keep copies of identifying documents, or in the least inform people that when they apply, this information is not being kept confidential," Diaz said.
In addition to those measures, Diaz said he hopes the DMV will adopt a policy of not sharing data with federal immigration officials without a subpoena or a search warrant.