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Law Enforcement Agencies Face Questions For Using DMV Databases For Facial Recognition


Millions of Americans who have never committed a crime have their faces in government databases. That's because they have driver's licenses. And today we're learning that federal law enforcement agencies have regularly been accessing those DMV databases for facial recognition scans. In a moment, we'll hear about the broader issues this raises.

First, we're going to look at one specific case. Late last year, an activist group in Vermont called Migrant Justice filed a lawsuit alleging that migrant dairy farm workers in the state were being targeted for deportation after they got driver's licenses.

Jay Diaz is an attorney with ACLU of Vermont. He's representing Migrant Justice in this lawsuit and joins us now. Welcome.

JAY DIAZ: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: What evidence do you have that ICE is using DMV information to assist with deportations in Vermont?

DIAZ: We have a great deal of evidence. The DMV routinely communicated with ICE throughout 2015 to 2018. We have emails between ICE agents and DMV agents, some commending the DMV agents and calling them honorary ICE agents. So they were sharing a good deal of information particularly about Migrant Justice members but also a whole host of other individuals.

SHAPIRO: And it's not just photos, It's other information beyond that.

DIAZ: Photos, applications for licenses, licenses themselves, car registration materials, the works.

SHAPIRO: And they were being selective with what they passed on. In one document, your lawsuit uncovered a state worker passed along what he described as south-of-the-border names to ICE.

DIAZ: That's right. As alleged in our complaint, we believe that ICE used the DMV in order to target Migrant Justice members, and more specifically and more broadly broadly, I guess I should say, the Latinx community. So people who came in and were applying for driver privilege cards, I guess, would get special attention from DMV at the time. And a lot of those people would then be forwarded on to immigration officials.

SHAPIRO: We should say laws vary from state to state. In Vermont, undocumented immigrants are allowed to have driver's licenses. The flow of information from the DMV to ICE seemed very informal. Is there supposed to be any kind of oversight for this sort of information sharing?

DIAZ: Well, we would like to see oversight for the information sharing. And, in fact, we asked for it for a number of years. We went to the legislature. We spoke with DMV officials. But unfortunately, we were not able to get the response that we needed in order to protect immigrant communities from being constantly in fear when they were going to get a license that they would be then targeted by ICE.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us a specific story about an immigrant who got caught up in this?

DIAZ: Yeah. We can talk about Kike Balcazar. He's a Migrant Justice leader. He has been outspoken. He's received numerous honors from various national organizations for his activism. After being pulled over by ICE, he was told that they got the information through DMV and through other sources.

We went back and looked at our records and saw that the DMV gave his car registration, license and photo to federal immigration officials and that that information was actually used as the justification to arrest him. We know, of course, that his activism played a key role in that as well.

SHAPIRO: If an undocumented immigrant came to you today and said, I could really use a driver's license in Vermont, should I go apply for one, what would you tell them?

DIAZ: I tell them what I tell immigrants now, that, you know, it does come with some risk, that it's an important thing to get if you want to drive legally. But it also does come with the risk that the information could eventually end up in the hands of ICE. We're fighting to stop that right now. So stay tuned. We hope to get a good resolution through our lawsuit, but the issue is still pending.

SHAPIRO: Jay Diaz, thank you for speaking with us today.

DIAZ: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: He's an attorney with the ACLU of Vermont, representing Migrant Justice in its lawsuit against ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and the Vermont DMV. NPR reached out to all three for comment. DHS and the Vermont DMV said they don't comment on pending litigation. ICE told us they don't comment on investigative techniques, but they point out that Acting Director Matthew Albence has denied a previous claim that the agency targets individuals based on their advocacy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.