States that allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses are thought of as friendlier, overall, to that population. It might be strange to discover then that in at least several of these states, the DMV shares their personal information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
This paradox was first discovered in Washington state, where Gov. Jay Inslee has been a vocal opponent of President Trump’s immigration policies and even signed an executive order last year prohibiting state agencies from helping to enforce federal immigration laws.
Despite that order, The Seattle Times reported last week that -- unbeknownst to Inslee's office -- the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) was sharing information with ICE up to 20 or 30 times per month, effectively assisting the agency in making arrests or helping them to prove in court that a person is in the country illegally. According to the Times story, an ICE arrest report for one man noted that “It was discovered that he had utilized a Mexican birth certificate to apply for his driver’s license.”
Inslee's office has since asked the DOL to cease the practice, and the agency has agreed not to share information with ICE unless its agents have a warrant.
But Washington is far from alone.
Twelve states -- California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont and Washington -- allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. We reached out to the Department of Motor Vehicles (or its equivalent) in all of them. Of the four that returned our emails and calls, three of them -- Colorado, Illinois and New Mexico -- have policies in place to share personal information regarding immigration and citizenship status with immigration agents.
Sarah Werner, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles, wrote in an email that it “may provide information to criminal justice agencies on a case-by-case basis as long as the information requested pertains to a specific investigation.” She clarified, however, that “the DMV investigations Unit has no reports of any law enforcement agency contacting them seeking information for an immigration case.” Colorado does not require that ICE provide a warrant.
Though he has not specifically mentioned information sharing, Colorado's governor, John Hickenlooper, has also been a vocal critic of Trump on immigration.
"Make no mistake: I disagree with many of the harsh immigration positions taken by the Trump administration, such as deporting law-abiding immigrants and ending DACA," he said in a statement last year.
New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division Spokesman Benjamin Cloutier said over email that the agency complies with law enforcement requests to information “on a case-by-case basis, as it pertains to an active investigation.” Cloutier did not respond to questions about whether the state requires a warrant.
And Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Illinois Secretary of State, whose office handles licensing, says Illinois also provides ICE information on a case-by-case basis -- with or without a warrant.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has previously been vocal about protecting undocumented immigrants’ licensing information since Trump took office, saying publicly that if he received a subpoena from ICE, he would ask the attorney general to fight it. But Druker clarified that was only in reference to large-scale data dumps -- not to individual requests from ICE in the context of an investigation.
“If someone comes here and they’re wanted for murder, we can’t respectfully sit back and not give that information,” Druker says.
Since Illinois started licensing undocumented immigrants in 2013, the secretary of state has released the information of about half a dozen undocumented individuals to ICE, according to Druker. “And this has been for comparatively serious [crimes]. People being looked at for felonies."
In Nevada, DMV Spokeswoman Brandi Alexandra Smith says that state law prevents the DMV from sharing information with any other agencies “for the purpose of immigration.” They do not release any information relating to immigration status, nationality or citizenship from license application files. Other than that, Smith says, federal agencies have the same access to DMV records as any other law enforcement agency.
For its part, ICE argues that it does not use DMV data to target people for deportation.
"Like other law enforcement agencies, ICE may use DMV data in support of ongoing criminal investigations or to aid in locating individuals who pose a national security risk or public safety threat,” says ICE Spokeswoman Lori Haley.
Immigrant advocates are, of course, against this kind of information sharing.
“Our fundamental position is that DMVs, or their equivalents, should not share information with ICE unless ICE has presented a judicial warrant, full-stop,” says Ruthie Epstein, an advocacy and policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Epstein also argues that sharing information undermines the purpose of giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses in the first place, which is to make roads safer.
“If people think their information is going to be turned over to ICE, they won’t avail themselves of these [licensing] programs," she says.
Indeed, studies suggest these laws do make roads safer: Last year, researchers at Stanford University found that a 2013 law allowing undocumented Californians to obtain a license reduced hit-and-run accidents by 7 to 10 percent in 2015, which is roughly 4,000 fewer than the previous year.