Driver’s License Policies Target Foreign Nationals
Crackdown raises concerns among area Latinos
Martin DeAgostino, South Bend Tribune (IN), Mar. 29
INDIANAPOLIS — In tandem with Indiana’s drive to curb driver’s license fraud, Elkhart County is intensifying efforts to prosecute people who present false identification at license branches.
License branch employees in Elkhart, Goshen and Nappanee will call police if they have doubts about documents that cross their counters, and police and prosecutors will respond with arrests and felony charges, as warranted.
As an added stick, Prosecutor Curtis T. Hill Jr. said he will pursue a no-bond policy for identity-fraud suspects whose identity cannot be determined upon arrest or booking.
The new policy follows months of publicity about lax security and fraud at Bureau of Motor Vehicles branches in Marion County, and three independent Elkhart County investigations into document fraud.
The Elkhart investigations led to the arrests last year, in separate cases, of two men accused of making fake driver’s licenses and Social Security cards. A pending investigation involves a suspect selling packets of documents that include fake Social Security cards, birth certificates and employer check stubs.
Prosecutors have brought a variety of charges against four Marion County BMV workers, and two of the employees pleaded guilty this week. One, convicted of bribery, said superiors knew of her activities and that many license branch workers in the county are on the take.
An investigation continues.
BMV employees have not been involved in the fake document rings identified in Elkhart County, according to Bill Wargo, chief investigator for Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill.
“No, flat out no,” Wargo said.
But Wargo said Hill determined that a coordinated police response to identify theft was needed after local BMV officials reported frequent attempts to pass off false IDs at license branches.
Combined, the three license branches estimated 15 to 20 such attempts each week, with about half in Goshen and the rest split between Elkhart and Nappanee.
Wargo and Hill say the cases “are directly related to foreign nationals of Hispanic origin” but that new arrest and charging policies will apply to anyone involved in identity deception.
Foreign nationals are focus
The local focus on foreign nationals tracks a statewide BMV policy that started March 15.
Under that policy, the BMV will work with federal immigration officials to determine the validity of all immigration documents presented as ID at license branches. The comparison will happen in Indianapolis, where a BMV office will have access to a federal immigration database.
Pending verification, local license branches will issue 60-day driving permits to applicants.
Applicants whose documents fail the immigration check will be notified by mail and given the chance to pursue an administrative appeal.
BMV Commissioner Mary DePrez said the agency might also share the information with local police, based on a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But a BMV spokesman said later that agency lawyers were reviewing that option, since the memorandum says the BMV must “refrain from disclosing any information provided” under its terms.
The focus on foreign nationals has raised concerns among Latinos, according to Araceli Lepe, an immigration counselor at La Casa of Goshen.
Lepe said some concerns involve uncertainties about the policy’s application, since it is new, but some involve likely barriers to immigrants’ participation in American life.
Undocumented immigrants will bear the brunt of change, but Lepe said everyone will be affected if immigrants who live and work among us feel forced to drive without licenses or insurance. “It’s the whole community that it’s affecting,” she said.
Lepe also questions the BMV’s participation in immigration enforcement, beyond its traditional focus on motoring.
“They’re not the keepers of our borders,” she said. “That’s another agency’s work.”
But BMV officials say they cannot issue driver’s licenses to people who cannot prove their legal right to be here, especially since the licenses serve as fundamental identity documents.
“My duty is to follow the law,” DePrez said when she announced the new policy.
Labor pool at risk?
According to Jorge Bustamante, Conley professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, the new policies represent the age-old rub between immigration and the economy, which needs and accommodates cheap labor.
But, he said, “they don’t want the human beings that come with that labor, and that is the reason why there are abuses of human rights, abuses of labor rights, at the same time as the persistence of the demand.”
Absent immigrant workers, he said, “that would be a serious blow to the economy of Indiana.”
It is not clear, however, whether a crackdown on license fraud alone will affect the labor pool and employment.
Wargo said employers have expressed some concerns about the new policy, and both he and Hill have met with the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.
“It is a big concern,” he said.
According to Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Philip E. Penn, “hard-working” Mexican immigrants and others fill a niche in the labor pool that would be hard to replace, even though “it’s pretty well accepted” that many lack proper immigration documents.
“Now, what to do?” he asked.
Bustamante suggests that Indiana license branches follow some other states’ leads by accepting identification papers issued by immigrants’ home countries. He said such a policy would promote proper licensing “without sacrificing safety or national security issues.”
If anything, however, Indiana is exploring additional security measures, including ways to verify Social Security numbers and cards presented at license branches.
That scrutiny might even apply to previously issued licenses and ID cards, DePrez said, since “the security of our database is essential in this day and age.”
That’s an appropriate stance, according to Scott D. Shultz, a Manpower Professional business development manager who places workers with Elkhart-area companies.
Shultz also serves on the Elkhart Chamber’s transportation council, and he doubts the new BMV and law enforcement policies will have much effect on the labor pool.
Even if it did, he said, employers and the wider community should welcome the BMV’s efforts to ensure the integrity of its document system.
“So I don’t really see a downside to it,” he said.