MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Federal law enforcement sources confirmed they are investigating a proliferation of Latinos living in Shelby County, but driving with Calhoun County, Mississippi, license plates.
"The majority of them are probably undocumented," said Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, a Mid-South advocacy group for Latino immigrants.
Calvo said many Latino immigrants living in Shelby County are paying third-party agents exorbitant fees to procure Calhoun County, Mississippi, license plates for their vehicles.
The reason, Calvo said, is the majority of them are illegal immigrants.
"Otherwise, why would you pay $200, $300, $400 just for the sake of it? It's because they had no choice," he said. "People do these things so that they can go to work, they can take the kids to school, they can go to church. People have to drive, so they started looking for alternative ways of finding or obtaining a license plate. That triggered an illegal way of doing it."
Calvo acknowledged the practice after the WMC Action News 5 Investigators documented a dozen vehicles tagged with Calhoun County, Mississippi, license plates parked in Shelby County driveways over two weeks. When we posted about them on Facebook, viewers sent in pictures of more than forty Calhoun County plates at various Shelby County residences and on Shelby County roads, as well as screen-captures of bilingual sources marketing the license plates on social media.
Memphis FBI spokesperson Joel Siskovic confirmed agents are investigating the use of the license plates, but would not comment on the focus or scope of the investigation.
Calvo added that in addition to illegal immigrants, third-party notaries are preying on Hispanics and others who are legal residents of Shelby County on work visas or other approved documentation. He said the notaries are misleading those residents, telling them they cannot obtain a Shelby County auto tag and must pay them to procure a Calhoun County, Mississippi, tag in order to legally drive.
"They could just go to the Shelby County Clerk's office and apply for (a Shelby County tag)," he said. "The third-party agents are misleading them or not telling the whole story. Either they are being preyed on, or they are the victim of some sort of crime."
We found vehicles with Calhoun County, Mississippi, tags at residences in the East Memphis neighborhoods of Hillshire and Berclair, in the Southeast Memphis neighborhood of Parkway Village and in Cordova, Tennessee. Attempts to reach the residents at those locations were unsuccessful.
Motor vehicle records revealed all of their tags are registered to a post office box of either a lien-holder -- typically, a bilingual auto dealership -- or a third-party agent/notary. A large portion of them share the same Calhoun County, Mississippi, post office box as the one listed in the registrations of the Calhoun County-tagged vehicles parked outside of Yamileth Traducciones, a bilingual services and notary public business at 4205 Jackson Ave.
Owner Denmy Yamileth Diaz assaulted WMC Action News 5's Andy Wise and walked off without answering his questions about the license plates. But a man who identified himself as her son said she stopped procuring the Mississippi tags at the request of the FBI. Siskovic would not confirm whether the FBI made that request.
Shelby County Clerk Wayne Mashburn said the agents and their clients are cheating Shelby County out of state and local auto registration fees. "Those are dollars that help us operate our streets, our highways and our programs that we have," Mashburn said. "I would call that fraud."
But Mississippi wouldn't.
"We do not have any statutory or regulatory prohibition against a third-party registration for motor vehicles," said Kathy Waterbury, government affairs and communications director of the Mississippi Department of Revenue. "The party seeking to title and register a motor vehicle in another person's name must provide a power of attorney to the local tax collector at the original registration."
Even so, Calhoun County Tax Collector Bill Malone, who abruptly cancelled two scheduled on-camera interviews, confided that he has banned all Memphis-based car tag agents from third-party car registrations in Calhoun County.
"We shut off all Memphis tag agents because we were getting too many requests," Malone said. "They were trying anything they could to register tags, writing down any addresses. I changed the policy because I suspected all those applicants did not live in Calhoun County."
"You have fees that are basically stolen from people here in Tennessee," Mashburn said. "It's got to be made up by me. It's got to be made up by you. It's got to be made up by the citizens of Shelby County. So it's just taken out of all of our pockets."
"Very unethical, I think," said Jennifer Reavis of Collierville, Tennessee, as she stood in the auto registration line at the Shelby County Clerk's Office at 150 Washington Ave. "Being untruthful, trying to circumvent the process."
Yet they're getting away with it -- illegal immigrants living in Shelby County, but driving with Calhoun County, Mississippi, license plates.
"They may be in the country illegally; I agree with you, but that's up to immigration enforcement to enforce," Calvo said.
These are the acceptable documents for proof of residency in order to title and register a vehicle in Shelby County, according to the Tennessee Department of Revenue:
PRIMARY (need at least one of these):
* Photo ID driver's license, photo ID card or photo learner's permit
* Birth Certificate (original or certified copy)
* Military Identification
* Immigration & U.S. Customs Enforcement documentation
* Marriage certificate
* Adoption decree
* Legal change of name
SECONDARY (need at least two of these):
* Computerized paycheck stub
* Union membership card
* Work ID, preferably with photo
* Financial institution document
* Social Security card or benefits statement
* Health insurance card
* IRS/state tax form
* Military assignment orders or leave/discharge papers