AG's office facilitates settlement of Migrant Justice lawsuit

Agreement increases access to driver’s privilege cards

Vermont Business Magazine Attorney General TJ Donovan announced that his office has facilitated the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Migrant Justice against the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The case involved allegations that DMV provided information from driver’s privilege card applications to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) based upon stereotypes related to national origin and immigration status. The settlement announced today enhances access to driver’s privilege cards and limits ICE’s access to information obtained by DMV. The settlement will help all Vermont residents gain access to driver’s privilege cards.

“With this settlement, the state of Vermont makes good on its promise to guarantee access to driver’s licenses without discrimination,” said Migrant Justice leader and suit plaintiff Enrique Balcazar. “Though justice delayed is justice denied for the many whose lives have been ruined by the DMV’s harmful collaboration with ICE, we firmly believe that this settlement will put an end to that abuse of power going forward. Vermont’s immigrant community can now safely exercise this hard-fought right.”

The case stems from the DMV’s practice of information-sharing and collaboration with federal immigration agents, particularly targeting Latino applicants. In 2013, after a campaign spearheaded by Migrant Justice, Vermont passed legislation creating a new class of driver’s license available regardless of immigration status, called “Driver’s Privilege Cards.” Following the law’s implementation, DMV officials began routinely colluding with ICE in the immigration detention and deportation of many DMV customers, prompting one ICE agent to write to a DMV employee, “We’re going to have to make you an honorary ICE officer!”

Despite a 2016 settlement with the Vermont Human Rights Commission, the DMV continued to discriminate against applicants and share information with immigration agents. In 2017, the DMV sent to ICE the driver’s license application of community leader Enrique Balcazar, on which a DMV employee had written “Undocumented,” an act that resulted in Enrique’s subsequent detention and potential deportation. Enrique is one of many human rights leaders in Vermont who have been targeted by ICE due to their activism, a pattern detailed in the lawsuit.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Migrant Justice farmworker leaders signed the settlement agreement to end the organization's claims against the DMV. The lengthy and detailed settlement formalizes new regulations to restrict communication and information-sharing between the state department and federal immigration agencies. Furthermore, the DMV will be prohibited from retaining copies of birth certificates, passports, and other sensitive information of applicants for Driver’s Privilege Cards. The DMV must retrain all personnel and hire an auditor for a minimum of 18 months to ensure compliance with the agreement.

ACLU of Vermont Attorney Lia Ernst: “Today’s settlement puts a stop to the DMV’s history of close collaboration with Border Patrol and ICE and ensures greater protections for our immigrant communities. The settlement limits what information the DMV collects and under what circumstances that information can be shared with the federal government. We know, however, that the protections our clients fought for and won are only as strong as their implementation and enforcement. That is why this settlement also includes training, transparency, and accountability measures that ensure that those protections are realized. The ACLU and our allies have long fought for the rights of immigrants in Vermont, and this detailed, far-reaching, and comprehensive settlement helps further disentangle Vermont from the Trump Administration’s deportation machine.”

Under today’s settlement, Vermont has adopted strong provisions protecting drivers’ personal information from unlawful disclosure. Across the country, states are increasingly recognizing it is necessary to vigilantly safeguard the information submitted to motor vehicle agencies to ensure the success of drivers’ license programs, such as Vermont’s Driver Privilege Card, increase public and road safety, and make a state more welcoming for all who call it home.

“We strive for communities in which all of us, regardless of where we were born, have access to the tools and opportunities necessary to thrive, including the ability to drive lawfully,” said Sarah Kim Pak, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “As a country and in our local communities, we cannot allow the weaponization of essential DMV and other government services, which require the disclosure of personal information and data, to infringe upon fundamental civil rights, to instill fear, or to bring harm to our families and neighbors. With this settlement, Vermont is taking a significant step toward safeguarding the rights, information, and data privacy of all its residents. We are proud to stand alongside our courageous plaintiffs and partners who have fought to secure this important victory for all Vermonters.”

“Today’s settlement is a testament to the power of every individual to demand and achieve accountability of public actors,” said Joel Cohen, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. “We are hopeful that this agreement will serve as a model for other public agencies across the country to evaluate their information sharing practices and adopt more robust anti-discrimination protections that ensure equal access to public services for all.”

While the portion of the case against the Vermont DMV was settled today, the case continues against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. Plaintiffs sued the federal agencies in November, 2018 following an unlawful, multi-year operation to surveil, harass, arrest, and detain Migrant Justice members and leaders. Those activities were undertaken in retaliation for plaintiffs’ First Amendment speech and assembly and in order to destabilize Migrant Justice and its successful organizing of Vermont’s immigrant farmworkers.

Migrant Justice is a Vermont-based human rights organization founded and led by immigrant farmworkers. The organization is a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with members Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios, and Victor Diaz, all of whom have been unlawfully targeted by ICE.

Plaintiffs in the suit are represented by the ACLU of Vermont, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the National Immigration Law Center, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

For more information, visit Migrant Justice v. Nielsen.

A copy of the settlement is here.

“We are all Vermonters—regardless of immigration status—and we should all be able to seek a driver’s privilege card without fear that the federal government will unjustifiably obtain access to our personal information,” said Attorney General Donovan. “This is an important settlement that helps protect all Vermonters’ ability to drive legally.”

The framework of the settlement enhances access to driver’s privilege cards and limits ICE’s access to information obtained by DMV in the following ways:

  1. Proof of residence for driver’s privilege cards will be less burdensome. Only two letters sent to the applicant’s Vermont address will be required.
  2. Documents to show eligibility for a driver’s privilege card will no longer be copied by DMV unless there is evidence of fraud. For past applications, Migrant Justice will provide DMV with lists of individuals and DMV will destroy documents related to those individuals as soon as possible, consistent with DMV’s three-year document retention policy.
  3. DMV will require strict compliance with the State’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy. DMV will release to ICE and other federal authorities information that is unrelated to citizenship or immigration status only if that agency certifies, under the penalties of perjury, that the information is needed for officer or public safety or some other legitimate law enforcement purpose not related to immigration enforcement.

The settlement includes a payment by the State of $100,000. However, most of these monies will be used by DMV to pay for the training of staff on the Fair and Impartial Policing policy and implicit bias. DMV will also hire a third-party monitor to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement.

Later today, a copy of the settlement will be posted on the Attorney General’s Office’s website here:

Source: MONTPELIER— Attorney General 1.15.2020