Following revelations in January that the Washington state Department of Licensing was routinely sharing residents’ personal information with immigration-enforcement authorities, some Latino and community groups have been calling for agency director Pat Kohler’s removal.
On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced she is stepping down.
In an April 27 resignation letter, Kohler said the loss of her brother has caused her to reevaluate her priorities. She did not mention the controversy around the department’s information-sharing practices, which stopped after The Seattle Times brought them to light.
Inslee didn’t address the issue head-on, either. But he said in a statement it is important that the next director be “fully committed to our ongoing efforts to protect the personal information and data of every Washingtonian.”
Until The Times story, the licensing department was turning over driver’s-license applications to federal agents just for the asking, despite an executive order by Inslee that was supposed to prevent state employees from helping with immigration enforcement.
Applications noted where residents were born and what identification, including any from foreign countries, they provided. Federal authorities used the information to arrest and deport people.
A deputy director resigned after the practices became public. The department now requires a court order before releasing information to officers investigating immigration violations, and it no longer asks people where they were born.
DOL also has been collecting data about how often residents’ information was shared with immigration-enforcement officers. Originally, the department told The Times it happened 20 to 30 times a month.
In fact, it sometimes happened much more often. A recent DOL report showed the department answered immigration-related requests about roughly 900 people between May 2017 and early January 2018.
In April, agency officials announced they would tour the state to explain their new policies.
At the same time, critics were stepping up their call for Kohler to leave, saying the department’s culture would not otherwise change.
Nina Martinez, board chair of the Latino Civic Alliance, said was happy to see Kohler moving on. Even so, she said, “the damage has been done. Now it’s about moving forward.”
Some people are afraid to renew their driver’s license or their vehicle tabs, fearful that it could lead them to be arrested, Martinez said. “It’s a real problem.”
Because of the “serious breach” that happened on Kohler’s watch, she was not the right person to rebuild trust, Martinez said.
Nor was she the best leader to guide the department through another sensitive subject: the implementation of enhanced driver’s licenses compliant with the federal REAL ID act, said Rich Stolz, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica.
DOL is holding public hearings this month about the new licenses, to be issued this summer, and language to be added to standard licenses indicating that they can’t be used for boarding planes or entering federal buildings. The enhanced licenses require proof of U.S. citizenship or immigration status.
Despite the criticism, Kohler, whose resignation takes effect June 30, said in her letter she was “most proud of the positive culture we have at DOL.”
She said the department is committed to a diverse workforce, and has made gains in reducing customer wait times and modernizing technology.
In his statement, Inslee called Kohler, who has served as director since June 2013 and spent a decade as executive director of the state Liquor Control Board, a “strong leader and administrator.”
His announcement said a search for her replacement will begin immediately.