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Immigrants In Country Illegally Worry About Sharing Of Personal Information


Twelve states and the District of Columbia allow residents who are in the United States illegally to obtain driver's licenses. California passed its law two years ago. Now more than 800,000 immigrants have taken advantage of that right. But with the arrival of President Trump to power, some of those license holders worry that their private information could be used against them. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: If you want to know what difference a driver's license makes, just ask 47-year-old Ramon Perez. The gregarious carpet layer from San Jose, Calif., says it brings him peace of mind.

RAMON PEREZ: You can have a better car, better life. You can go to the bank. Somebody stop you. Hey, here's my license. If the kids want to go to Disneyland, you can take them because you have a license. And you're not afraid at all that the police is behind me.

GONZALES: Perez is sitting in the office of an immigration advocacy group in San Jose called SIREN. That stands for Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network. In a nearby room, about a dozen clients are gathered as community organizer Erica Leyva launches a know-your-rights workshop.

ERICA LEYVA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: She's talking about the California law, AB 60, that has allowed 822,000 undocumented residents to get a driver's license. State officials say they expect to eventually issue almost a million and a half licenses. Diana Morales, an attorney for SIREN, says after the election of Donald Trump, a lot of the agency's clients wonder whether having that license would make it easier for the federal government to find and deport them. And she says they have a lot of questions.

DIANA MORALES: How is this going to affect me? Am I going to have my driver's license taken away now now that we have an incoming president that says that he does not agree with me being here?

GONZALES: One man who asked that we only identify him by his first name, Macario, says he's concerned that the feds will take the state information and use it to deport him.

MACARIO: You know, federal government can do that. They have several means to do that. And, yes, I'm afraid.

GONZALES: That's a concern in several other jurisdictions where undocumented residents can get a driver's license or an ID card. In New York, there's an ongoing debate over whether the city should destroy the personal-information records of undocumented residents who carry a municipal ID card. Some fear that information could be misused by the government. California officials say they protect the personal information of all license holders. But federal authorities, including immigration officials, can still get basic information such as the name, address, gender, date of birth or the license number. Artemio Armenta is a spokesman for the state DMV.

ARTEMIO ARMENTA: But none of this information includes any AB 60 identifier or legal status.

GONZALES: In other words, California's database doesn't distinguish between citizens and people in this country without authorization. And that's exactly the problem, says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for Immigration Reform or FAIR, a group that advocates immigration limits. He says California has a record of shielding immigrants who are in this country illegally.

IRA MEHLMAN: It wouldn't surprise me that California built this into the system in the first place - that California built in the safeguards to ensure that the records couldn't be searched.

GONZALES: Still, DMV officials say the licenses issued to people in this country illegally are different. They clearly state that it is not acceptable for official federal purposes and can't be used to get a job, register to vote or any public benefit. And state lawmakers already have said they will resist any attempt by the new administration to target immigrants in California. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.