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Vermont State Rep. Mollie Burke On Reports Of The State's DMV Sharing Data With ICE


Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have applied facial recognition software to some state driver's license databases to find people in the country illegally. That's according to documents a team at Georgetown Law obtained through public records requests. ICE officials asked for DMV records from at least three states where undocumented immigrants can get licenses, and at least two complied - Utah and Vermont. Vermont State Representative Mollie Burke is a Democrat and Progressive. She sponsored the House bill that allowed undocumented workers to become licensed to drive through the Vermont DMV. She joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

MOLLIE BURKE: Nice to talk to you, Audie.

CORNISH: So to start, back in 2013, what intention of this legislation - allowing migrant workers to drive legally - what was the need you thought you were meeting?

BURKE: There are about 1,500 undocumented people, mostly Mexicans, working on Vermont dairy farms. And they are, basically, supporting our dairy industry. And the need was that so many of them were living in the shadows of the barns - really literally. They did not have transportation. They relied on volunteers or their employers to get them to medical appointments or shopping and all sorts of things. And a group called Migrant Justice started working on the issue and started talking to lawmakers. So it was a very sort of innocent kind of idea that, you know, we can be a state that can accept that these people are here supporting our economy, and we want to be able to provide for them in some way.

CORNISH: Now, fast forward many years, and the Vermont DMV has many records - right? - of people in the country illegally; people who have gotten these driver's licenses. So what was your reaction when you learned about the cooperation between ICE and the Vermont DMV?

BURKE: Well, I feel terrible that we facilitated this law and now it's putting people in jeopardy. And that was not the intent of law at all. And so it's very, very distressing to hear what's been going on. As you probably know, in 2017, the state officially ended this policy. But in the meantime, there have been other sharing of information by DMV, maybe not at the top levels, with ICE officials.

CORNISH: So now you have this same migrant advocacy group effectively suing the DMV, suing ICE over this move. At this point, are you about to kind of wait and see until things shake out legally or is there going to be a legislative push alongside this?

BURKE: Well, my understanding is that this is in early stages - the lawsuit. And our session doesn't start again until January, so there's sort of time to work on some legislation and see what the legislation needs to be in order to have greater protections.

CORNISH: Facial recognition is a tool that law enforcement can use for good - for instance, to find missing children. Are there situations under which you'd support that kind of cooperation?

BURKE: Well, certainly, I think in the case of missing children, in the case of some kind of criminal act. But this is just to sort of - hey, this person came in and applied for a driver's license. And they have a Latino last name, and you might want to check that out, you know? So...

CORNISH: But can you have one without the other? I mean, once the state responds to this kind of request, can it pick and choose?

BURKE: That's a question, I think, for lawyers. I don't know. I don't know how they would. I mean, I think that any legislation that we had would have to address that - under what circumstances would this be allowed?

CORNISH: At this point, where does that leave some of the people who advocated for this law in the first place? Are they having regrets as you are? Are you hearing from them?

BURKE: Well, I don't have regrets about it. What I do have regrets about is that maybe we didn't anticipate enough of how this could be used for ill. And I think there was a lot of sort of, you know, excitement about it. Wow. This is wonderful. Vermont is a very welcoming state. The interesting thing is that, you know, we have a visa program for people who come to Vermont and pick fruit. And they can come in on an H-2A visa, and they can come in legally. And they just have to leave within a certain number of months. And dairy workers work 365 days a year. And Senator Leahy has been trying for years to get some kind of a visa that would accommodate this and would really solve this problem because we are criminalizing people who are just working on farms and also advocating for their rights as workers.

CORNISH: That's Vermont State Representative Mollie Burke.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BURKE: Thank you so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.