MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - It's not just Calhoun County, Mississippi, tags now.
The WMC Action News 5 Investigators have evidence that more Memphis-based agents and notaries, some with expired credentials, are crossing into other Mississippi counties to score car tags for both legal and undocumented immigrants living in Shelby County.
We've documented Shelby County immigrants and residents driving with Marshall County tags. In one single block near the Hillshire neighborhood of East Memphis, we found residents riding with Calhoun, Desoto, Tippah and Alcorn County tags. They can't legally get Shelby County tags, so they pay an agent or notary a pile of cash and give them power of attorney to get Mississippi tags. The agents register the tags under Mississippi post office boxes.
The result is undocumented workers -- some without drivers licenses or insurance -- are living in Shelby County, but avoiding Shelby County registration by driving with Mississippi car tags.
"The chances are very great that they do not have insurance at all," said Memphis independent insurance agent Bennita Wade. Wade said of the 30 percent of Shelby County drivers who are uninsured, as many as 10 percent are undocumented workers driving without licenses and insurance. "The likelihood of them not staying at the scene (of an accident) is greater because of the other issues of them maybe not being documented, the fear of being deported."
"We've had that problem here in Tate County as well," said Tate County, Mississippi, Tax Collector Ernie Brents. Brents said his office used to wrestle with Memphis-based agents attempting to secure Tate County tags for undocumented immigrants in Shelby County. But unlike other Mississippi county tax collectors who heed a loophole in Mississippi law that does not restrict power of attorney for third-party auto registration, Brents and his clerks invoke a portion of Mississippi's administrative code. With the strength of law, it states the tax collector "..shall register all vehicles in the county, the city and the taxing district where the vehicles are domiciled."
That means actual physical Mississippi addresses, not post office boxes.
"It's all about domicile," Brents asserted. "We ask for documents: utility bills, drivers licenses, landlord leases, property receipts. If they don't produce those documents, I shut them down if they cannot prove residency or domicile."
Virtually every Mississippi tag we've tied to third-party agents for Shelby County immigrants is registered to a Mississippi post office box, not a domicile. Some of their registrations list Memphis-based bilingual auto dealerships as the vehicles' lienholders.
One of them is Luna Brothers Auto Sales, 2507 Lamar Avenue. Owner Olga Meza said she does not secure her customers' car tags, but she's not surprised some of them are hiring agents to cross state lines to get them. "They force them to do whatever they have to do, I mean, because they have to get to work, to school, anywhere, to church," Meza said.
"People have to drive, so they started looking for alternative ways of finding or obtaining a license plate," said Mauricio Calvo, executive director of the Hispanic advocacy group Latino Memphis. "They may be in the country illegally, I agree with you, but that's up to immigration enforcement to enforce."
Our initial investigation revealed federal investigators are looking into the proliferation of Mississippi tags among drivers living in Shelby County. "The majority of them probably are undocumented," Calvo acknowledged, adding that the rest of them are legal Shelby County residents who have been misled by their agents or notaries. "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."
"You have fees that are basically stolen from people here in Tennessee," Shelby County Clerk Wayne Mashburn said. "Those are dollars that help us operate our streets, our highways and our programs that we have.
"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."
Yamileth Diaz, the agent/notary we confronted in our initial investigation at Yamileth Traducciones, 4205 Jackson Avenue, wrote a post on Facebook the next day from the Orlando International Airport. "...it was worth it to risk myself to get the license plates for so many people. It doesn't matter that this might cost my freedom. I don't regret it," read the post.
Also after our initial investigation, we found Garcia's Tax Service, 5489 Winchester Road/Suite 9, advertising on Facebook the sale of both Mississippi and Tennessee tags. Its business license expired May 2014, according to Shelby County business tax records.
An unidentified employee greeted us in the company's lobby. When we asked him if Garcia's Tax Service was getting Mississippi tags for undocumented workers in Shelby County, he answered, "Whoa! To be honest with you, I'm not the one that does it. I wouldn't be the one to respond. That would be Ms. Garcia."
We left a business card and requested that owner Yaneth Garcia call us back. She never acknowledged the request.
Tennessee law requires people to register their vehicles with the Tennessee county in which they live within 30 days of establishing residency. Memphis Police Spokesperson Sgt. Karen Rudolph said the department will enforce that law if officers suspect one of these license plates isn't really from Mississippi. "We would only address the violation if the vehicle was actually being operated on a city street," she said.