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The number of driving-privilege cards issued to undocumented immigrants in Utah dropped to a six-year low in 2014.
That's more evidence that illegal immigration to Utah has halted and maybe reversed with more people going home to their native countries than coming here.
Utah issued 35,232 driving-privilege cards in 2014, according to state data obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a records request.
That is down from 36,282 in 2013 and 36,921 in 2012. The numbers show a continuing decline from a peak of about 43,000 in 2008 when the recession hit full force.
"Certainly it's evidence that we no longer have a significant wave of immigrants coming to Utah. Just like the nation, immigration to Utah has come to a virtual standstill," said Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah.
She cautions that it is impossible to tell how much of the decrease is due to slowing immigration and how much may be attributable to other causes, such as more immigrants obtaining permanent status and qualifying for regular licenses or lingering fear by some that signing up for cards could lead to deportation.
But since numbers continue to drop, that at least suggests immigration is not increasing, she said.
"It's just further evidence that when the Great Recession hit, migration came to a virtual standstill here and nationally," Perlich said, adding that "we've had such an anemic recovery" that immigration has not revived.
"We have seen a few families that have gone back home" because of a continuing slow economy, said Luis Garza, executive director of Communidades Unidas. "Mainly, those [undocumented immigrants] who are here have been here for a few years," and he sees few new immigrants.
"There's definitely more stability with less immigration now," said Michael Clara, a Salt Lake City School Board member who works with the undocumented community.
The Utah driving privilege card was enacted in 2005 as a way for undocumented immigrants to drive legally and obtain auto insurance. At the time, many immigrants feared registering for the cards could lead to deportation, even though the law banned the program from sharing personal information with immigration officials.
In the first year, about 25,000 cards were issued, and that climbed to nearly 34,000 in the second year.
"I cannot think of one [undocumented] person I know who doesn't have a driving privilege card" by now, said Clara. "Everybody recognizes that you are far better off having it than not."
Mark Alvarez, an attorney and activist in the Latino community, said most undocumented immigrants have become convinced that it is wiser to have cards than "to risk being arrested for driving without a license or not having insurance."
While state officials worked hard to advertise them and promise they would not lead to deportation, in the beginning, Alvarez said those efforts naturally dropped off over time with the effect that he thinks some immigrants may not seek them now for lingering fear over deportation.
Alvarez and Garza add that cost may be a barrier for a few immigrants to obtain the cards.
The cards cost the same as regular driver licenses ($25 for an adult, $30 for people under age 21) but are good for only one year, instead of the 5-year period of a regular driver license essentially costing five times as much.
Also, first-time driving privilege card applicants must pay $55 for a background check and fingerprinting.
"It's an extra obstacle for some," Garza said.
Nannette Rolfe, director of the Utah Driver License Division, said one reason for the drop in driving privilege cards may be that some immigrants "obtained lawful presence, which would make them eligible to receive a regular license or a limited-term license."
For example, federal data show that more than 7,200 Utahns have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status because they were brought as children into the county. That defers deportation for two years at a time, allowing DACA recipients to apply for limited-term driver licenses that last those two years.
Recent executive orders by President Barack Obama to expand groups that qualify for deferred deportation which are opposed by GOP leaders could further increase the number of people who could convert from a driving privilege card to a regular license.
Last year Rolfe reported that the state had found that nearly 6,000 undocumented immigrants had illegally obtained regular driver licenses in recent years, largely through use of Social Security numbers they should not have had.
In 2010, the state started requiring all license applicants to bring in proof of citizenship, including such things as a birth certificate or passport, plus a Social Security card. That process identified people who applied for a driving privilege card after previously having a regular driver license.