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Chipping Away at ‘Sanctuary Policies’ in Utah

A proposed Utah immigration law that would allow police and federal immigration officials to access Utah’s driving privilege-card database could scare some illegal immigrants away from obtaining licenses, immigration attorneys told the Salt Lake Tribune this weekend. Utah, along with Washington and New Mexico, does not require proof of citizenship or legal residency for driver’s licenses, opening them up to illegal immigrants as part of an effort at road safety. The card cannot be used for legal transactions or airline travel, but opens up the driver’s privilege to non-citizens.

If law enforcement can access these documents, it might deter some illegal immigrants from obtaining the driving privilege cards, opponents of the law argue:

Local and federal law enforcement officials have said they are targeting only the criminal element among undocumented immigrants. But some attorneys worry the bill, if passed, would make it easier to start deportation proceedings for minor infractions.

If undocumented drivers show a driving-privilege card and respond yes when asked if they’re in the country illegally, they might be arrested on an immigration detainer. But immigration attorney Aaron Tarin says they can usually prevent deportation by keeping the admission or card from being used as evidence in court. It’s a violation of federal civil rights laws for police to ask about immigration status in an unrelated crime.

With access to the driving privilege card database, though, immigration officials could skirt the civil rights violation and quickly prove a person was born outside the country.

“This could create a much larger, quasi-legitimate list of 1,300,” said Tarin, referring to the roll of purportedly undocumented people allegedly compiled and distributed by two state workers. “This would allow law enforcement to use state resources that should be confidential.”

Proponents of the law told the Salt Lake Tribune they will do no such thing and will only check the database in certain circumstances. But in some cases, perception that the system is insecure for illegal immigrants could prevent some people from participating. The logic is similar to other so-called “sanctuary policies,” which immigrants rights supporters argue are as much about protecting public safety as they are about helping illegal immigrants. Because illegal immigrants often feel they need to drive, policies like Utah’s are in place to make sure they can do so legally — and within the proper training and ability requirements.

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