Utah DMV reviews vanity license plate after SLC couple raises concerns about its potentially anti-immigrant message

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – A vanity license plate approved back in 2015 containing the characters “DEPORTM” is now under review by the Utah State Tax Commission, after a Salt Lake City couple raised concerns about its potentially anti-immigrant message.

As an associate professor at Westminster College, Julie Stewart dedicates most of her research to the sociology of inequality, social movements, and migration. She is also a board member for Comunidades Unidas.

“Given that I work really closely with many families in Utah that have been affected by the political climate right now, I would say this is one of the harder times in their lives,” said Stewart. “This is a time where they are literally fearing for their lives. In Utah, one out of every 12 people is an immigrant. So that’s a significant portion of the population.”

On Thursday, when she and her husband, Matt Pacenza were picking up their son. She said they became deeply concerned about a vanity plate with the characters “DEPORTM” on a car stopped in front of them at an intersection. They looked up the DMV’s guidelines for personalized plates and then took to social media to voice their concerns.

“We were pretty surprised because that’s the kind of message that seems full of hate and disrespect,” said Stewart. “It troubled us because Utah has a long reputation of being a state where the citizens are really welcoming. To have something that is sanctioned by the state that postulates such a hateful message was really troubling.”

Senator Daniel Thatcher chimed in on Twitter with, “A private citizen has a first amendment right to say offensive things. The State does not, and has rules about license plates. I believe those rules have been violated here. Hopefully Tax Commission agrees.”

Senator Luz Escamilla also responded with, “This issue will be discussed in the next Administrative Rules Review committee next Wed at 9 a.m.”

According to the Utah DMV’s website, personalized plates are prohibited from expressing ‘contempt, ridicule, or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation.’

Tammy Kikuchi with the Utah State Tax Commission said the Utah DMV receives 450 applications for vanity plates every month, which could be quite an onerous task for their staff of 12 people. She said there are two levels of approval required for each application and a third set of eyes at the Utah State Prison where the plates are printed.

Out of more than 2,800 applications, ABC4 News reviewed from Utah State Tax Commission, we found seemingly innocent combinations that were rejected such as AUR0RA, BEAVERS, D0LPHNS, AV1AT0R, C0WGIRL, W00T, and Y0DA. Stewart said she’s surprised that the combination DEPORTM made it through.

“It’s hard to imagine that combination of letters could mean anything other than what we seem to think it means, which is this broad anti-immigrant statement. It has no place in Utah and no place in the United States,” she said.

Kikuchi said she couldn’t specifically comment on the DEPORTM plate. But said, “Due to the complaints about it, we are in the process of reviewing it with the possible outcome of requesting revocation under Utah Code that identifies reasons for denial of personalized plates.”

She explained that the job calls for a vast knowledge and awareness of vocabulary including slang, street language, and other foreign languages, which means sometimes things can fall through the cracks.

“We do review after the fact too and if it violates either the statute or the rule then we will recall the plate,” said Kikuchi. “The public is certainly welcome to speak up at any time and while we don’t necessarily rely on them, we certainly appreciate when they can call something into question that we just didn’t know. We don’t want anything out there that’s offensive.”

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