Migrant Justice, an advocacy group for undocumented farmworkers, announced Wednesday it has settled a years-long discrimination lawsuit with the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.
The agreement aims to end the DMV’s practice of sharing information with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials, particularly about Latino applicants.
The new set of protections ensures that the DMV will no longer make and store copies of birth certificates, passports or other personal documents that are presented when Vermonters apply for driver’s licenses. The DMV will also destroy any previously copied documents on request.
“Taken together, these two protections means that if I’m ICE, and I’m looking for that information, DMV simply won’t have any to share,” Lia Ernst, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Vermont said at a Statehouse press conference.
The settlement also enacts new limitations on responding to requests from ICE or Border Patrol about people applying for driver’s licenses, and includes provisions for transparency and accountability.
“It is not enough to just fight back against the federal government,” Ernst said. “We must also take the fight to state and local policies and practices that have turned the state into a cog in the federal government’s deportation machine.”
As per the agreement, all DMV staff will be trained not only on the new regulations, but also on impartial policing, implicit bias and cultural competency. And, for the next 18 months the department will be monitored by a third party (in this case, Karen Richards, former executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission) to ensure that all of the stipulations of the settlement are being met.
“DMV was negotiating within the confines of a set of perceived legal and practical limitations and disseminated a great deal of creativity, hard work and patience,” Ernst said.
The settlement stems from 2013 legislation that created a new class of driver’s licenses called driver’s privilege cards that were available to Vermonters regardless of their immigration status. However, following the implementation of the new law, the department began providing that immigration information to ICE on a regular basis.
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After one such communication, an ICE agent wrote an email to a Vermont DMV employee that stated, “We’re going to have to make you an honorary ICE officer!”
A 2016 settlement with the Vermont Human Rights Commission aimed to stop the practice, but it became clear that that didn’t happen when a Migrant Justice leader named Enrique Balcazar was detained in 2017 while trying to get a driver’s license. A DMV employee had written “Undocumented,” on his application, a move that ultimately resulted in Balcazar facing deportation proceedings.
“After many years, we are now finally realizing the promise that was made years ago to respect the right to freedom of movement for all without discrimination,” Balcazar said, through an interpreter.
From 2016 to 2018, the group reported that more than 40 Migrant Justice-affiliated activists were arrested by ICE, many of whom faced deportation. Migrant Justice leaders said an exact number of people who faced deportation in Vermont because of the collaboration between ICE and the DMV will never be known, but said they know that the number is “quite large.”
Now, the activists said, they can rest a little easier knowing that the collaboration has ended.
A member of the Migrant Justice Farmworker Coordinating Committee named Uriel said up until now, he has opted not to get a Vermont driver’s license, out of fear of being deported. But now, he said, that will change.
“Thanks to this agreement, I will now be able to go forward with confidence, feeling safe in exercising this right to get a driver’s license,” Uriel said, through an interpreter. “This will be something that benefits so many people in our community that will now be able to fully exercise this right to drive safely and securely on the road.”
The next step, according to Migrant Justice activists, is going after ICE directly to stop the practice on a national basis. The settlement removes the Vermont DMV from Migrant Justice’s lawsuit, but the suit will continue on to a full resolution, they said.
“We continue to invite our community to work together to push forward because we know that with unity, there is strength,” Uriel said.
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