The Department of Motor Vehicles has settled a case with a Jordanian national who was detained by federal law enforcement after applying for a driver's privilege card.
The DMV agreed to make several changes to the driver's license application procedure and to department policies as part of a settlement in a Human Rights Commission case brought on behalf of Abdel Rababah.
Rababah makes it clear he is a proud southern Vermonter.
He first came to Windham County from Jordan in 2006 to study English. He stayed after his visa expired, finding a welcoming community and a wide circle of friends. People who know him describe him as kind, quick to help others and dedicated to his pursuits. When he first arrived in Vermont, his English was very limited, one friend recalled, but within months he had become proficient.
For eight years, Rababah said in an interview, he led a "peaceful life." He took classes and spent time volunteering in the community, he said. The biggest issue was that he couldn't drive.
"It's a very rural area, so it's very hard to access and to get from place A to place B," Rababah said.
He managed to get by, getting rides from friends, but when he heard about the creation of driver's privilege cards, he decided to head to the DMV.
The program, the result of 2013 legislation, was crafted with the intention of making driving privileges accessible to Vermont residents who are not in the country legally. While the cards require proof of residency in Vermont, they do not require proof of legal presence in the United States.
According to a Human Rights Commission investigation report made public in December, Rababah first went to the Dummerston DMV to get his driver's permit in February 2014, just a few weeks after the law went into effect. He took his Jordanian passport, birth certificate and Social Security card, which is marked as valid only for work with authorization.
He passed the written test and left with a permit.
When he returned two months later to take the road test to get his driver's privilege card, the process did not go so smoothly.
The clerk who worked with Rababah asked him several questions about his identification.
On his application, Rababah answered "no" to a question asking whether he is a U.S. citizen. He left the following question, asking if he had proof of legal residence, blank. However, on his application, there was a black X marking that he did have legal residence, which the commission's investigation determined was made by the DMV employee who processed his application. (In April, the DMV affirmed in a letter that Rababah did not falsify any part of the application.)
Rababah was issued a temporary driver's privilege card in April 2014, but his case was referred to a DMV investigator. That person, who had contacted the federal government as part of his investigation, asked Rababah to come in for a meeting. When he arrived, an agent from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was there. Rababah was detained, and deportation proceedings were initiated against him.
"I was promised safety when accessing services from the DMV, and when I went to the DMV I went with good faith and good intention," said Rababah, a slight figure with pale greenish eyes and close-cropped brown hair. "I had done nothing wrong."
The experience was unlike anything he had experienced during his time in Vermont, he said.
"I never had any problem with anybody. I never had any problem with law enforcement," Rababah said. "So when all of a sudden things happen like that it was, it was really (a) very, very unpleasant situation."
'It's about trust'
To Rababah, it was immediately clear he had been treated unfairly. But the issue was much bigger than his experience alone. The violations were "too many and too big," he said.
"As soon as the detective decided to deceive me, the case became a liberty case, and more of a trust and safety issue about the community," Rababah said.
"This experience, it affect(s) every Vermonter. It's about the safety of the community. It's about trust," Rababah said. "If we can't trust the system, how can we as people function in the community?"
It would take more than two years for Rababah's legal ordeal to be resolved. He became involved with several different legal processes over the following months.
He declined to speak about the deportation proceedings.
Meanwhile, Rababah worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and took his case to the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
Jay Diaz, the ACLU-VT attorney who represented Rababah, said the case pointed to a clear contradiction.
"It just seemed blatantly unfair that the state of Vermont would be holding up a carrot of lawful driving privileges to undocumented people and then hitting them with a stick of immigration-related arrest," Diaz said Thursday.
DMV Commissioner Robert Ide said Friday that Rababah's encounter at the DMV happened shortly after the driver's privilege card program was implemented.
"We were learning, and our counter people were learning. I don't think anyone intentionally set out to make his life difficult," Ide said of Rababah.
Several other cases around the country as well as in Vermont are clarifying the rights of people who do not have documents authorizing them to live in the country, according to Diaz. He mentioned another recent Human Rights Commission case in which a sergeant with the Grand Isle County Sheriff's Department detained a Mexican citizen and contacted U.S. Border Patrol.
"The law is becoming more and more clear around the country that this is an illegal practice, an unconstitutional practice and a discriminatory practice," Diaz said.
Brendan O'Neill, of the group Migrant Justice, said Rababah's case came to the organization's attention at the same time there were concerns about implementation of the privilege card process.
Migrant Justice was a key player in the conception and passage of legislation creating the new form of identification.
"It's a failure of the federal immigration system and the lack of action on comprehensive immigration reform that forces localities and states to figure out how to define more humane conditions," O'Neill said.
In December, the five members of the Human Rights Commission voted unanimously that based on an investigation into Rababah's case, there were "reasonable grounds" to believe he had been discriminated against.
Through mediation, the case between Rababah and the DMV was resolved this month with an 11-point agreement that involves changes of several DMV policies.
The application for licenses and privilege cards will be altered to make it more clear for applicants who aren't authorized to be in the country. The DMV agreed to add language clarifying that people interested in getting a driver's privilege card do not need to answer a question about citizenship. Applications will also be offered in Spanish.
The DMV will develop a procedure for processing driver's privilege cards and will take input from the Human Rights Commission and the ACLU of Vermont. The policies will include limitations on when front-line staff can refer privilege card applications for investigation. Staff members who work at DMV counters and managers will be trained in those procedures.
The agreement also refers to the guidelines for fair and impartial policing that the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council adopted this year.
Ide said the mediation process in Rababah's case was "very productive and helpful."
"I don't think it significantly changes how we do things, but I think it adds some clarity, and it adds clarity for our counter workers too," Ide said.
The department rolled out the driver's privilege cards concurrently with the implementation of REAL ID cards, which require a higher level of identification and meet a federal standard.
Ide said the department has seen far more applications for driver's privilege cards than anticipated across Vermont's population, not just among people living in the U.S. without authorization. As of June 2015, some 40,000 Vermonters had the privilege cards instead of a REAL ID — far more than the estimated migrant worker population of 1,500. Some people may prefer the cards; others may get them because they require a lower level of documentation.
There have been concerns about fraudulent applications for driver's privilege cards. According to Capt. Jake Elovirta, the DMV's enforcement and safety director, investigations have found 350 fraudulent applications for the form of ID since it was implemented in 2014.
Elovirta said the DMV does sometimes use contacts with the federal government in verifying applications and issuing driver's licenses. Those connections are meant to be used as tools, he said.
Ide said that since Rababah applied for driving privileges in 2014, the department has already been working to implement some training around how to process the cards. He added that he welcomes the input of the commission.
"The circumstances are what they are, and we've agreed to rectify that in a way that seems to appease him," Ide said of Rababah.
Human Rights Commission Executive Director Karen Richards said she is very happy with the final agreement.
Richards said Rababah's case raised concerns that other people could be deterred from performing basic day-to-day tasks out of fear.
"What we really worry about is that it has a chilling effect on people if they don't feel comfortable getting into a car to bring their children to school" or to run other errands like picking up groceries, she said.
"The Department of Motor Vehicles really took this seriously and was willing to make a lot of changes that I think will improve access for people to the driver's privilege card in the manner that the law intended," Richards said.
Rababah was also awarded $40,000 in damages, some of which he plans to donate, including to two southern Vermont institutions that have been important to him over the years: Vermont Adult Learning, where he studied and fine-tuned his English, and his local library.
'I think it's about improving'
When Rababah first came to the United States from Jordan, he said, he expected Americans would welcome him because of the warm diplomatic relationship between the two countries.
"Jordan has been a key ally to the U.S., and I always had thought that this would be enough reason for me not to be targeted," Rababah said. "Unfortunately, it was the other way around."
The settlement with the DMV was finalized about two years and three months after Rababah was detained by Customs and Immigration.
He said the situation led to considerable emotional distress. He is suspicious when strangers ask questions about his life. He gets nervous. He said he has found it difficult to make new friends.
"There is nothing really can be done by the DMV to fix the damage done to me," Rababah said.
However, he believes the terms of the settlement will help communities across Vermont and will make the system better.
Rababah is grateful to his community, and to the attorneys and others who helped him.
When the case he had spent so much of his time working on ended, he felt like a part of him was missing, he said.
"It's not about winning or losing, no," Rababah said. "I think it's about improving."