Migrant Justice Settles Discrimination Lawsuit with DMV
Federal case over immigration information-sharing ends
January 15, 2020, Montpelier, VT — Human rights organization Migrant Justice and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles have reached a settlement in a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit. The Vermont-based farmworker group, accompanied by its legal team, announced the settlement Wednesday in a press conference in the state’s capital.
“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.
A copy of the settlement is here.