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."
The agents who approached Rivera asked to see his driver's license, Tejada said, and compared the photo with a picture they had brought with them — a picture that Tejada believes was a copy of his driver's license photo. Rivera was taken away in handcuffs and is awaiting deportation.
Rivera, who worked at a concrete company, did not have a prior criminal conviction in Maryland, Tejada said, and online state records do not show any charges filed against him. But he did have a deportation order issued against him by Immigration Court, she said — likely the result of his multiple apprehensions at the border.
He and Tejada have a 3-year-old son.
Other residents in the Catonsville complex described a series of confrontations with the ICE that took place over several days, usually within a few blocks of the apartments. A woman named Isabella, who declined to give her full name for fear of her husband's safety, said ICE agents pulled her and husband over in late August. The agents asked for her husband, who was driving, by name.
The woman said she is convinced that her husband's driver's license led immigration agents to him.
"Everyone that I know that was in the process of getting a license has now stopped," she said.
State officials said they are investigating the issue but acknowledged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has access to some MVA data in the same manner as other law enforcement agencies. An MVA spokesman declined to say whether the state has any evidence that ICE agents are accessing the information.
"The intent of the legislation was to improve highway safety," the spokesman, Buel Young, said of the program to grant licenses to immigrants. "We are concerned about anything that would deter individuals from applying."
Young said all users of MVA data must certify that they will follow the law. And he said the state agency has the ability to monitor users and take "immediate action if an inappropriate access is discovered."
Opponents of the state law said a driver's license should not shield immigrants who are in the country illegally from law enforcement practices employed regularly on citizens. Motor vehicle data has long been a staple repository for police and other federal agencies, said Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies.
"It is an accepted practice for [motor vehicles] to share the information it has with law enforcement," said Vaughan. "This is the kind of vital cooperation and information sharing that we know is necessary in the wake of so many criminal conspiracies."
Civil rights groups have long worried about the possibility of such searches. Internal emails from the ICE field office in Atlanta that were published last year by USA Today showed agents were attempting to "gain access to any temporary driver licenses issued to foreign-born applicants for possible leads."
The Catonsville raid occurred days before O'Malley announced that the state-run jail in Baltimore would no longer honor requests from the ICE to hold immigrants beyond their scheduled release — a practice that is commonly used by immigration agents to apprehend immigrants who have had run-ins with police.
The governor, who is considering a run for president in 2016, made the decision in response to a letter from Maryland's attorney general, who found that the detentions might be unconstitutional, leaving the state vulnerable to lawsuits.
Maria Martinez, chairwoman of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said she had not heard of any large-scale sharing of MVA driver's license information with federal authorities.
"That is not at all a practice I'm aware of or that I believe would be condoned," she said. "That concerns me, and I believe it would concern the administration."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.