Hundreds of immigrants who have committed a felony and fraudulently obtained driver’s licenses in Nevada run the risk of arrest and even deportation if they apply for the new driver authorization card.
Convicted felons, those with outstanding warrants and even those who have been convicted of three misdemeanors also could be deported if they apply for the new card, which is expected to be provided to roughly 60,000 Silver State residents next year under a new law.
People in the country illegally are expected to flood DMV offices across the state when the law goes into effect on Jan. 2.
The measure is intended to make Nevada’s roads safer by requiring all immigrant motorists to pass driving tests and, if they own a motor vehicle, purchase insurance.
It’s also supposed to help police identify those immigrants who get behind the wheel on a daily basis. The irony is that the card itself is not intended for identification purposes.
People who have falsified information to DMV face a dilemma: do they apply for the cards and risk arrest and possible deportation or do they bypass the new law and continue driving illegally?
Some immigration attorneys are hoping such violators will be pardoned, especially in cases where identity fraud is the only crime they’ve committed.
Or better yet, they suggest that the 2015 state Legislature pass a new law that would exempt them from arrest.
SENATOR URGES CAUTION
Meantime, state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, who sponsored the bill that sailed through both houses earlier this year, issued a warning Tuesday:
“If you’ve got issues that you need to resolve, don’t apply for the card. If you have a felony, outstanding tickets that you haven’t paid, the DMV has been very clear about it: You could get arrested and be taken to the Clark County Detention Center, where they’ll run your fingerprints through the national database.”
Chester Clagett, an investigator for the DMV’s compliance enforcement division, said DMV officers “are on orders” to arrest those who have fraudulently obtained legitimate driver’s licenses or who present false documents to obtain the new driver authorization card.
He said it usually takes a day to make an arrest, and that those arrests, carried out by DMV officers themselves, usually come after an applicant is discovered through “facial recognition,” a relatively new technology that the agency began using in 2009.
“There’s a big market out there for buying stolen birth certificates and Social Security cards, and everybody already knows this,” Clagett said.
“A lot of people are scared to come into the DMV because they’re illegal, but we don’t arrest people for being illegal. We only arrest them if they went to a swap meet, bought some fake birth certificate or Social Security card, then got a license from us because of it.”
But not everybody is always arrested.
DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said the number of people trying to obtain driver’s licenses with fraudulent passports and birth certificates far outnumbers those who have been arrested.
Since 2009, there have been 4,200 cases of people who either tried to obtain driver’s licenses fraudulently or presented some sort of document that didn’t meet state requirements, only to be turned away. During that time, 210 people were arrested, the larger numbers — 73 in 2009, 68 in 2010 — coinciding with the beginning of facial recognition.
“But as far as enforcing the identity theft laws, we’re not going to treat anybody any differently than anybody else,” said Malone of the new driver card.
DEPORTATION NOT AUTOMATIC
And just because somebody is arrested doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will automatically be deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, although under federal guidelines anybody who has been convicted of a felony and is living in the country illegally is subject to deportation.
Anybody convicted of three misdemeanors also can be deported, which means that even if the felony of committing fraud to obtain a driver’s license were to be pleaded down to a misdemeanor, that person could be deported if it’s a third misdemeanor.
To reduce the misdemeanor jeopardy, this year’s state Legislature passed a law that shortens the punishment of a gross misdemeanor to 364 days instead of the usual 365 days, said Laura Martin, spokeswoman for Progressive Alliance Leadership of Nevada in Las Vegas.
“If you’re even sentenced to a year in jail, and you don’t even end up serving it, your chances of being admitted to this country decreases, and your chances of being deported increases,” she said. “It was to help the immigrants out.”
But not all is as dire as it might appear.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said her agency is targeting convicted felons, repeat border-crossers and those with outstanding deportation orders — not immigrants who have fraudulently obtained a driver’s license to circumvent state driving laws.
And yet Nayyara Abel, an immigration attorney for Casa Legal in Las Vegas, tells the opposite story.
“I’ve had people who’ve done nothing and have been deported for solely being here illegally, some of them for more than 30 years here,” she said.
According to ICE, 2,527 immigrants originally identified through fingerprint screenings at the Clark County Detention Center have been removed from the country. Of those, 672 were felons who committed serious or violent crimes and more than 550 were repeat offenders who crossed into the country illegally more than once.
But ICE could not answer whether the remainder of those numbers involved anybody who had been convicted of a felony for presenting false documents to obtain a driver’s license.
DA PLANS LENIENCY
A lot of the punishments and deportations hinge on how local law enforcement and local DA offices handle the cases.
Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson said he doesn’t foresee punishing nonviolent violators to the full extent of the law.
“If they (the DMV) catch a guy out there selling fake documents to get licenses and he’s profiting on the backs of others and making a business out of it, we would probably frown upon this guy’s conduct,” Wolfson said.
“But if the individual is a law-abiding citizen who just wants to comply with the new driver card law, I don’t know if we could prosecute these cases to the full extent of the law. I can’t see our office taking a full-blown, strong push against it. We’d probably give a small fine or a ‘stay out of trouble’ order for six months.”
Alexandra Chrysanthis, a chief deputy district attorney who screens criminal cases, said she has regularly seen cases of fraudulent driver’s licenses come across her desk. The penalty, depending on the circumstances, is up to 10 years in jail if it’s classified as burglary upon entering the DMV with intent to commit a felony, up to four years if it’s classified as a forgery.
Chrysanthis estimates that the DA’s office deals with roughly 12 such cases a month, and that deputy district attorneys look at the evidence that’s sent to them by the DMV. More often than not, the DA prosecutes the violators and they are sent a summons in the mail, although the ultimate conviction isn’t always a felony, she said.
But more often than not, the perpetrators usually “slide,” she said, “or slide less” because in the past, before facial recognition technology, they were never even arrested.
“It’s not within our jurisdiction to ‘pardon’ anyone,” she said, noting that’s a matter for the Legislature to consider.
Peter Ashman, an immigration attorney who chairs Nevada’s local chapter of the American Immigration Attorneys Association, favors a new state law.
“I think they should be pardoned, if that’s possible,” Ashman said. “There should be some sort of provision for people who’ve made a mistake based on just wanting to drive. It’s one thing to pick a lady’s purse and grab everything and ruin their credit, but these are guys that went to a swap meet and got a Social Security card so they could drive.
“The question everyone should ask themselves is, ‘Are we safer on our highways when it’s done in this manner? Or are we safer when people are insured, have taken a test and can finally drive legally?”
And yet some immigrants fear that the driver cards, with “Not valid for ID purposes” on their face, could put them on the radar for deportation.
Jose Hernandez, a public information officer with the Metropolitan Police Department, said most immigrants have no reason to fear driving with the new cards. He said they will only be cited, or arrested, based on the infractions they commit, not whether they are in the country illegally.
“Immigration laws have no bearing on why the person is arrested,” Hernandez said.
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512.