Blog Archive

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Immigration attorneys: Database sharing could mean more deportations

By Sheena McFarland
The Salt Lake Tribune

September 5, 2010

In 2005, legislators worked to make Utah roads safer by requiring residents without a Social Security number to obtain a state driving-privilege card, but they promised not to share personal information with police.

In 2010, legislators made minor changes to the card law for temporary-visa holders, but again they promised drivers their personal information would be protected.

In 2011, the promise may no longer hold true.

The immigration bill proposed by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, last month would allow both local police and federal immigration officials to access the driving privilege-card database, which contains international birth certificates.

Local and federal law enforcement officials have said they are targeting only the criminal element among undocumented immigrants. But some attorneys worry the bill, if passed, would make it easier to start deportation proceedings for minor infractions.

If undocumented drivers show a driving-privilege card and respond yes when asked if they’re in the country illegally, they might be arrested on an immigration detainer. But immigration attorney Aaron Tarin says they can usually prevent deportation by keeping the admission or card from being used as evidence in court. It’s a violation of federal civil rights laws for police to ask about immigration status in an unrelated crime.

With access to the driving privilege card database, though, immigration officials could skirt the civil rights violation and quickly prove a person was born outside the country.

“This could create a much larger, quasi-legitimate list of 1,300,” said Tarin, referring to the roll of purportedly undocumented people allegedly compiled and distributed by two state workers. “This would allow law enforcement to use state resources that should be confidential.”

Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard finds the proposed law “troublesome.”

“Obviously, it’s a way to get around the civil rights violation that’s occurring. It’s a way of going in the back door instead of going in the front door,” Barnard said. “It is not the kind of provision that I think we need on the books.”

Sandstrom said the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Muehler v. Mena indicates that asking about immigration status isn’t a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Tarin says the Mena ruling only applied because the police had a valid search warrant at the time.

Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said other questioning is only allowed in border states.

“This is what happens when you have politicians who don’t know the law,” Kuck said. “No ruling applies to traffic stops across the country. The Supreme Court has never ruled on that issue nationwide.”

Sandstrom, though, sees no problem with using information in the database to enforce immigration laws. He said that access to the database would only be allowed after someone had committed a crime and couldn’t be used to start a “witch hunt” for undocumented immigrants in the state.

Sen. John Greiner, R-Ogden, who is also the city’s police chief, says it’s a “stretch” to say that law enforcement would go through the trouble of checking something such as the card database.

“I don’t think there’s a need for the law enforcement to be in that database,” said Greiner, who supports the bill. “If immigration attorneys are worried about this happening, they’re just crying wolf.”

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, believes the information sharing is one of many parts of the bill that could be unconstitutional.

“If his legislation gets to be implemented, you will effectively be getting rid of the driving-privilege card,” Robles said. “But do we want our entire resources dedicated toward deporting someone who was speeding?”

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who crafted the driving privilege card law, says it wasn’t created to keep track of undocumented immigrants in the state.

“Database sharing can have some significant, unintended consequences,” Bramble said.

The card helps Department of Public Safety officials keep track of repeat DUI and speeding offenders and requires drivers to have insurance and pass a written driving test in English, he said.

“The regular Utah citizen is better served by having a lower incidence of uninsured drivers,” Bramble added.

Roger Tsai, chairman of the Utah branch of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, agrees with the merits of the driving-privilege card and worries Sandstrom’s measure could reverse those benefits.

“You take the more than 40,000 undocumented immigrants who have stepped out of the shadows and then use their information for the purpose of proving they are here illegally and starting the deportation process,” Tsai said. “That is going down a very slippery slope.”