The country's immigration enforcement agency has turned many states' driver's license databases into catalogs for facial image recognition: Millions of Americans' faces have been unwittingly scanned as Immigration and Customs Enforcement searches for people who are living in the country undocumented.
Researchers at Georgetown University collected five years' worth of government documents and emails through public records requests. After analyzing the documents, the researchers announced over the weekend that ICE has been using some states' Department of Motor Vehicle records to complete its operations.
The report brought new attention to the ways in which ICE and local DMVs cooperate. While in some states, like Utah, the role of DMV employees has been more passive—for instance, agreeing to ICE's requests to provide license data and facial images—in other states, DMV employees may have been more active collaborators.
In December, I wrote about Migrant Justice, a migrant farmworker advocacy group in Vermont that sued ICE and the state DMV for allegedly collaborating to target undocumented dairy workers. Enrique Balcazar, one of the group's leaders, said that public records show he was flagged as undocumented in an email a DMV employee sent to ICE. Balcazar was later arrested.
Migrant Justice's lawsuit alleges that ICE is specifically targeting undocumented activists, with active collaboration by DMV employees. Public records unveiled during the lawsuit revealed that DMV employees regularly sent information on drivers to ICE agents, potentially in violation of privacy laws. These exchanges were sometimes accompanied by racist emails or text messages—for instance, DMV employees sent ICE information on driver's license applicants who they said had "south of the border names."
"We've seen a pattern of DMV employees referring people to ICE unnecessarily," Josh Rosenthal, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, told me in November.
Rosenthal's organization joined with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and a collection of other advocates to represent Migrant Justice's case against ICE and the Vermont DMV in federal court. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Vermont is one of 12 states that, along with the District of Columbia, allow undocumented people to get driver's licenses. According to the new report out of Georgetown, ICE searched the license databases in at least three of these states: Vermont, Utah, and Washington.