Julisa Tejada, an illegal immigrant, at her apartment with… (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun )
A recent raid at a Catonsville apartment complex has raised concerns that federal immigration agents are using Maryland motor vehicle data to locate illegal immigrants, potentially undermining a state initiative to ensure that drivers are ready for the road regardless of their citizenship status.
Residents of the Melvin Park Apartments said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pulled over several vehicles within a few blocks of the complex last month and asked for the registered owners by name. Relatives of those detained said they had not provided addresses to any government entity other than the Motor Vehicle Administration.
Maryland is one of 10 states that offer driver's licenses to people who cannot prove U.S. citizenship. The state's system, which was approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley last year, was intended to encourage immigrants to obtain insurance and pass a driving test before getting behind the wheel.
But now, fears that the ICE is accessing addresses and other information in the system have set up a potential conflict between federal and state policies, and have given pause to some immigrants. The state's most influential immigrant advocacy group, CASA de Maryland, is cautioning members that immigration agents are able to tap into the driver's license records.
"We feel at this point that we have no option but to warn people that if ICE is looking for them, they're probably going to be looking through MVA information," said Kim Propeack, the group's political director.
She added, "It will absolutely freeze applicants."
With Congress at an impasse over how to change the nation's immigration law, President Barack Obama has vowed to take executive action after the midterm elections in November. The Department of Homeland Security is reviewing policies to find a more "humane" approach to enforcement, but no one knows for sure what that means.
Advocates and many Democrats want Obama to significantly curtail deportations, particularly for those who have not committed crimes and who have families in the United States. Opponents and many Republicans say the president should leave it to Congress to work out an agreement that secures the border first and does not reward illegal immigration.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they do not troll MVA records to identify enforcement targets. However, the agency said in a statement Friday that agents may query the database to obtain more information about immigrants it already knows are in the country illegally.
"The agency may use [motor vehicle] data in support of ongoing criminal investigations or in order to help locate priority targets such as national security threats or public safety risks," ICE said in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.
"ICE is committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement to prioritize the agency's resources on those who pose a threat to public safety and national security, particularly convicted criminals," the agency said.
The statement did not specifically address whether the agency has run such searches in Maryland.
By the end of August, Maryland had issued 38,013 driver's licenses and learner's permits to people who did not submit proof of U.S. citizenship, an MVA spokesman said. Legislative analysts reviewing the Maryland proposal last year predicted that 135,000 would be issued by 2018, though they said the number was little more than a guess.
The Pew Research Center estimates that 275,000 undocumented immigrants live in Maryland.
State officials created the current two-tier driver's license system after much debate. The second-tier licenses are not valid for purposes of federal identification, such as for boarding a commercial airplane, but they do allow holders to drive legally within the state.
Applicants must demonstrate that they have paid state taxes for two years.
Del. Jolene Ivey, a lead sponsor of the legislation that created the system, said that if agents are using MVA data to find criminals — murderers or rapists, in her words — she believes the public will support it. But if the data is being used to track down noncriminals, it will force "people back into the shadows," she said.
Julisa Tejada's husband, Jeovany Rivera, was picked up by immigration agents in Catonsville on the morning of Aug. 27 as he left his apartment for work.
Rivera, a Honduran national, entered the United States in 2003 and obtained a driver's license under regulations that were less rigid than now. He repeatedly crossed the U.S. border with Mexico and was caught attempting to enter the country illegally on at least two occasions, Tejada said.
He recently renewed his driver's license, she said.
"There is a lot of fear in the community," Tejada said. "Some people aren't getting the driver's licenses, and some are getting them but using other addresses."