Lawsuit filed over immigrant driver's license data

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Immigrant advocates filed a lawsuit Wednesday over concerns that federal immigration agents could use state driver's license databases to track down people for deportation, according to an AP report.

The National Immigration Law Center sued the Department of Homeland Security demanding documents detailing how federal immigration agents access and use driver's license data.

The lawsuit comes after immigrant advocates in Maryland received reports that federal agents earlier this year arrested several immigrants with prior deportation orders after apparently identifying them with help from driver's license photo and vehicle information.

The lawsuit aims to compel officials to release records under the Freedom of Information Act that were requested in April.

The lawsuit also comes about two weeks before California starts issuing driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally. More than 1 million people are expected to apply over the next three years, according to AP.  The California Department of Motor Vehicles is training 900 freshly-hired employees to help deal with an expected surge in driver's licensing applications from immigrants without legal status. 

"We need to at least know what the current policy is," said Melissa Keaney, an attorney at the Los Angeles-based advocacy organization. "We don't want to cause unnecessary panic, but we don't want to cause a repeat of what happened in Maryland."

A spokeswoman for the enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security had no comment about the pending lawsuit. But Gillian Christensen of Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued this statement to KPCC.

In general, ICE does not use data from the DMV to identify immigration enforcement targets. However, 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.

AP reports that ten states have approved driver's licenses for immigrants in the country illegally, many of them with a distinct marker so the documents can be distinguished from those carried by U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Meanwhile, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday has moved thousands of young immigrants a step closer to obtaining driver's licenses in Arizona.

In California, advocates have long raised concerns about privacy protections for immigrants applying for the new licenses, fearing the information could be used by law enforcement agencies that have access to driver data for investigative purposes.

The Center argues more information is needed about how immigration enforcement agents use driver data to dispel any concerns that might discourage immigrants from applying for driver's licenses.

A spokeswoman for the California's Department of Motor Vehicles, contacted by KPCC on Wednesday afternoon, said the agency did not have a comment on the lawsuit.

After the Maryland arrests, state officials there told immigrant advocates that federal immigration officials can query the database by name but can't execute a bulk download, said Elizabeth Alex, lead organizer for CASA de Maryland.

Alex said she was surprised to learn of the arrests after Maryland resumed issuing driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.

"We started getting a lot of questions from people saying, 'Is it safe?''', she said, adding that the group has been encouraging immigrants with a deportation record to seek legal advice before applying for a license.

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