MONTPELIER — The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles is changing how it investigates driver’s license fraud, but changes aimed at appeasing migrant justice groups could make it harder to bust criminals.
When the DMV discovered hundreds of out-of-state illegal immigrants applying for a Vermont driver’s privilege card in 2014, investigators at the Enforcement and Safety Division took action to stop the fraud, working closely with federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The state-federal teamwork exposed national and even international crime syndicates, and by February 2015, detectives ferreted out 231 cases of confirmed fraud. In almost every case, undocumented immigrants had lied about living in Vermont.
Since then, the pace of investigations has slowed, and the number of verified fraud cases stands at 350 cases as of October. Migrant advocacy groups have been working to sever the collaborative partnership between state and federal agents, and legal threats over a single case of alleged discrimination have put DMV investigators and counter staff, not fraudsters, on the defensive.
“If individuals are not legally present in the United States for whatever reason, contact with ICE could result in ICE saying, ‘Hey, this guy is illegally here, we want to come visit him.’ Their goal was to not have that happen,” DMV Operations Director Mike Smith said of demands from pro-migrant groups.
Since Vermont began issuing driver’s licenses to noncitizen residents in January 2014, DMV investigators have worked effectively with federal immigration agents to identify criminals, spot residency fraud and allow Border Patrol to conduct sweeps for possible deportation.
The partnership is mutually beneficial: state detectives need the federal government’s alien verification databases, and ICE agents need state DMV data to support ongoing criminal investigations, such as cracking down on document fraud and locating individuals who pose a security threat.
To help identify potential fraud, DMV counter staff run checks on applicants using the System Alien Verification for Entitlement (SAVE) system, a federal database maintained by U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. According emails obtained by Watchdog, counter staff in 2014 made 3,109 SAVE checks and flagged 281 potential identity concerns. Of that number, 11 cases were assigned to a DMV investigator for additional questioning.
That investigative tool is about to go away. Court proceedings and a Human Rights Commission report alleging discrimination by DMV employees have forced the department to change how it investigates driver’s privilege card applicants.
“We’re working down through all the recommendations and making some changes to a lot of the things we do,” Smith said. “We’re in the process of sending that back to the Human Rights Commission right now for them to review and then get back to us.”
A major change relates to Question 5 of the DMV license application form, which asks, “Are you a U.S. Citizen?” and if not, “Do you have proof of legal presence?”
The answer to that two-part question determines whether counter staff will run a check through the federal SAVE database and identify additional problems.
“We’re modifying the application and saying if you’re applying for a driver privilege card you don’t have to answer this question,” Smith said.
Letting driver privilege card applicants skip this question would end a three-year practice of using SAVE checks to help identify fraud.
Smith said while the change would keep ICE agents out of driver’s privilege card investigations, he affirmed that applicants would still need to provide proof of identity and Vermont residency, as well as a Social Security number or equivalent ineligibility letter from the Social Security Administration.
“At that point in time citizenship has nothing to do with the driver privilege card,” Smith said. “We need to know whether you’re a resident of Vermont, whether you can drive, and then we can issue the license, provided you’ve got the residency documents.”
Passed in 2013, Vermont’s driver’s privilege card law, S.38 (Act 74), seeks to let an estimated 1,500 illegal immigrants living in Vermont drive legally. So far, the law has produced 350 verified cases of fraud perpetrated by noncitizens living outside the state.
Illegal immigrants seek the credential because it opens the door to a range of benefits afforded to U.S. citizens. In recent years, state detectives in Vermont and other states have caught crime ring members charging anywhere from between $2,000 and $4,000 per license. Some fraudsters even place foreign language ads in out-of-state newspapers to attract illegal immigrants as customers.
Capt. Jake Elovirta, the DMV’s enforcement and safety director, defended the changes coming to the department, saying they are similar to Fair and Impartial Policing policy standards applied elsewhere by Vermont law enforcement.
“We will not participate in any immigration sweeps with federal agencies, which is a federal regulation; it’s not something under state law where we’re cross-deputized for that type of enforcement,” Elovirta told Watchdog.
“Our policy in our state is identifying that driver privilege cards can be obtained for those folks … and the concern is what we were doing was identifying those folks for a federal agency to take enforcement action.”
Asked why continuing to work with federal agents to arrest bad guys is now frowned upon, Elovirta simply restated, “We enforce the laws of the state of Vermont, and that’s our expectation. We’re not cross-deputized to do the federal regulations.”
But being cross-deputized is not a requirement for working with feds, and Vermont and other states have have worked successfully with ICE on criminal investigations for years.
In 2014, detectives at the Vermont DMV successfully collaborated with ICE on dozens of suspected fraud cases, according to public records obtained by Watchdog.
Examples include identifying out-of-state applicants and applicants who admitted charging $1,000 to help others get the licenses. In some cases, the collaboration identified individuals under a federal fugitive warrant for deportation, including the whereabouts of multiple-deportee Juan Estrada Villalobos.
The case for which DMV staff were accused of discrimination, case No. 14MV003159, also appears on the list. Speaking of Jordanian national Abdel Rababah — a shortened version of Abdel Mohammad Mustafa Rababah, which didn’t fit on a driver’s privilege card, according to public documents — the case summary states the “subject presented valid for work only SSN [Social Security number], but claimed to be an undocumented worker.” It adds: “Questions arose regarding proof of legal presence. Was a student overstay — taken into ICE custody — ID cancelled.”
Elovirta admitted that pressure to shut down the federal-state collaboration on driver’s privilege card investigations was coming not from lawmakers but from migrant advocacy groups. He nevertheless said DMV detectives “are still able to effectively do our investigations as needed.”
On a related concern about how changing Question 5 could affect motor voter registration, Smith said the proposed changes will continue to prevent illegal aliens from registering to vote.
The revised form will include the following instruction: “Question 5 is required for voter registration, Real ID or EDL. If applying for a driver privilege card and not registering to vote, go to Question 6.”
Smith said the instruction must be added because a single application form is used for all Vermont driver’s license credentials and is filled out by U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike.
While noncitizen Vermont residents will soon be allowed to bypass the question, applicants for Real ID compliant licenses and enhanced driver’s licenses must answer Question 5 and provide proof of citizenship, according to Smith.
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