License to deport [Editorial]

Maryland's decision to join a handful of states that allow undocumented immigrants the chance to obtain driver's licenses was a pragmatic one designed to keep residents safe. Border security, deportation policy and pathways to citizenship are not within Maryland's purview, but ensuring that drivers on the road are competent, that their vehicles are registered and that they purchase insurance are the state's responsibility. The establishment of a two-tiered license system here — in which those who cannot document their immigration status are allowed the chance to obtain a license valid for driving but not purposes like getting on airplanes or entering federal buildings — was simply a rational response to the twin facts that some hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants live in Maryland and that by necessity they will drive whether we like it or not.

The policy is of a piece with others the state has adopted in recent months. For example, Gov. Martin O'Malley decided this year that the Baltimore City Detention Center, which is run by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, would not automatically honor detention requests by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Mr. O'Malley couched the decision in constitutional and humanitarian grounds — "No family should be ripped apart because the Republican Congress can't come to the table and reach a reasonable compromise on comprehensive immigration reform," he said at the time — but like driver licensing, it has important implications for public safety at large.

Immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, are less prone to report crimes or cooperate with the police when the lines between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement are blurred. It does no one any favors if immigrants believe they put themselves at risk by cooperating with authorities or abiding by the law.

That's why Sunday's report by The Sun's John Fritze about recent immigration enforcement efforts in Catonsville was so disturbing. A series of encounters between ICE agents and undocumented immigrants in that community strongly suggests that federal immigration officials are using state motor vehicle records to assist in their efforts to find and possibly deport those who are in the country illegally. As a result, the lead advocacy organization for Latino immigrants here, Casa de Maryland, is warning that the two-tiered licensing system it worked for years to enact could put at risk those it was meant to help.

There is nothing wrong or unusual about law enforcement agencies using motor vehicle records to seek information about targets of investigations. But the existence of two-tiered licenses in Maryland creates the possibility that MVA data could be used for fishing expeditions by overzealous enforcement agents rather than as a targeted tool. ICE officials insist that they don't do that, and in a statement Friday, the agency said it may use the MVA data "in support of ongoing criminal investigations or in order to help locate priority targets such as national security threats or public safety risks."

That explanation would fall in line with the Obama administration's stated policy under the Secure Communities Program of prioritizing for enforcement those undocumented immigrants who are serious criminals, and if that were truly the case, the practice of using MVA records would seem appropriate. Unfortunately, ICE's credibility on such matters in Maryland is virtually nil. As Mr. Fritze previously reported, more than 40 percent of those deported from Maryland under Secure Communities have no prior criminal record — double the national average of such deportations and in the top five among the states.

Even absent that bit of context, the circumstances of ICE's recent activities are suspicious on their face. The fact that agents have pulled over several residents of a specific apartment complex in Catonsville belies the idea that the agency is focused on dangerous criminals. It sounds like little more than a sophisticated version of the Bush-era raid outside an East Baltimore 7-Eleven when agents, under pressure from a supervisor "to bring more bodies in," arrested 24 Latinos, including a janitor on his way to Johns Hopkins Hospital where his son was being treated for cancer.

If Congress can't get its act together to bring some sanity to our immigration system, and if President Barack Obama is too timid to take what action he can until after November's midterm elections, states need to have the latitude to take steps like these to make the best of a bad situation. That's what Maryland is trying to do, and until the federal government can solve the underlying problem, it should stay out of the way.

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