In the immediate aftermath of President Trump's victory in November, numerous liberal mayors and police chiefs across the country affirmed their commitment to making their cities sanctuaries for unauthorized immigrants. In Seattle, the day after the election, for example, Mayor Ed Murray said, "These are our neighbors, and we will continue to support our neighbors. We can't allow ourselves to be divided and sorted out. That's not America." But while Murray's police department promises not to inquire about residents' immigration status in most cases, is it still a "sanctuary" city if the police department allows federal immigration authorities direct access to information about residents?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) documents show that for years, law enforcement in hundreds of jurisdictions nationwide, including major sanctuary cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, are feeding information into regional databases that can be combed through by ICE. When ICE needs information on residents for raids or criminal investigations, these regional databases can give ICE crucial information, like phone numbers, addresses, and comments about individuals' scars, marks and tattoos that may have not made it into federal records. Such locally-specific information can be helpful for ICE agents, especially in sanctuary cities where ICE often conducts immigrant raids in lieu of formal cooperation with local authorities.
Local and federal law enforcement leaders argue that such data is crucial in carrying out criminal investigations that pose national security or public-safety threats. But while this access to local data is generally supposed to be used for law enforcement purposes, immigrants' rights activists worry such data sharing channels could harm immigrant communities, especially as the president casts a wider net in his illegal immigration crackdown. For instance, he has prioritized for deportation those who are accused but not charged with a crime.
Where ICE can mine local law enforcement databases
Since at least 2011, ICE officials have been able to search for information from nearly a thousand law enforcement agencies across the country, authorized by formal agreements struck between ICE and regional law enforcement groups. In an email, ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke confirmed the agency can still directly "ping" for information in all of these local law enforcement databases, noting that none of these past data-sharing agreements have been invalidated since the first ones were signed in 2008. Below is a 2011 ICE map visualizing the law enforcement databases which ICE can still access. Bourke says no new agreements have been signed since a privacy impact assessment in October 2011. (A Freedom of Information Act request for the text of these agreements has been filed.)
While other DHS agencies can also access these local law enforcement databases, past reports suggest that ICE is the primary department accessing this information. According to a 2011 DHS report, for example, between August 2010 and February 2011, ICE conducted 77 percent of all DHS agency searches of local law enforcement databases. Most of these searches pulled from state databases, such as those of Arizona and Texas, and metropolitan regional databases, such as those of the greater Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington D.C. areas. Past estimates have found that these states and metropolitan regions feature some of the deepest concentrations of unauthorized immigrants nationwide.
Currently ICE has access to local law enforcement databases, organized by states, such as Arizona and Texas, and metropolitan regions, such as the greater Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. areas. In Arizona, AZLink, the database that experienced the most DHS searches during this period, pools together information from numerous law enforcement agencies across the state.
In the months following the election, most self-affirmed sanctuary jurisdictions involved in these agreements have not indicated that they plan to cut off these data-sharing channels with ICE. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, says that it is not taking any steps to prevent ICE from accessing the information it feeds into a larger countywide law enforcement database. "This is a crime fighting tool that enhances the Los Angeles Department's ability to conduct thorough investigations as criminals are not isolated solely to Los Angeles, but commit crimes nationally," said LAPD spokesperson Patricia Sandoval in an email.
Kevin Harris, a spokesperson for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, stated that D.C. also plans to continue sharing data with a regional database accessible to ICE, though noted that such data does not include residents' immigration status and is restricted for "law enforcement purposes only." Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sean Whitcomb did not directly respond to inquiries about the city's data sharing channel with ICE, stating in an email, "Seattle is a welcoming city and we support the rights of undocumented residents."
Immigration rights advocates argue such data sharing, even if restricted to law-enforcement purposes, as in D.C., still undermines these cities' status as sanctuaries. Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office, said that many unauthorized immigrants have committed non-violent criminal offenses that ICE could target for "law-enforcement purposes. "Things that stem purely from immigration status, such as driving without a license or using a different Social Security number for work, are treated as crimes," says Guliani. "So just because they're saying it's a law-enforcement purpose, doesn't mean it's not going to hurt most immigrants and further the Trump administration's agenda."
How local police data is used by federal immigration authorities
Local law enforcement data can be used in ICE investigations against a wide variety of targets, from suspected terrorists and drug smuggling organizations to unauthorized residents who have failed to comply with removal orders, according to Claude Arnold, a former ICE Homeland Security Investigations special agent. Arnold said that information from local criminal databases drives high-level ICE investigations, helping agents connect the dots among networks of human traffickers, money launderers, and other criminal organizations. "We do a lot of intelligence sharing with locals, like the LAPD's child porn investigation unit," says Arnold. "The purpose of that data sharing is for criminal investigations, and it is used to keep the country safe."
But Arnold also acknowledges that local law enforcement information, funneled through ICE's intelligence unit, can contribute to immigration enforcement, such as home raids against those who have not shown up to court to receive final orders of removal. "So, for example, if ERO [ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations wing] is doing an operation against fugitives with orders of removals, the intelligence people will give them their data," says Arnold. Government estimates over the last three years have found that the majority of unauthorized immigrants do not show up to court hearings in which their final removal orders are issued.
When trying to find unauthorized immigrants at large, agents often rely on both private and public sources of data, like utility records and law enforcement databases, says John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE in 2013 and 2014. "They have target lists of known undocumented immigrants, and then they tap into local law enforcement and drivers' license databases," says Sandweg. "The main thing is to get the addresses, but 50 percent of these addresses aren't good, so sometimes they follow leads and end up at churches or workplaces." Sandweg stresses, however, that ICE already has its hands full just trying to deploy agents to pick up unauthorized immigrants from jails that do honor ICE's detainer requests.
Local law-enforcement experts say their information may be particularly useful to ICE, given that federal databases often lack information captured during arrest, booking, and jail encounters. "ICE doesn't itself collect the granular information we get from our jail, where we have emergency points of contact, phone numbers, and addresses," says Joel Rivera, a Division Chief of the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office, whose department feeds into a Texas state database accessible to ICE. "The database will also show case file numbers, so they can call us to get access to the full case files with even more information, like who has visited and called them in jail."
This trove of granular data can then be linked to ICE's sophisticated data visualization tools. Aristides "Harry" Jimenez, a former ICE Homeland Security Investigations deputy special agent, notes that ICE agents deploy link-analysis software from the data-mining firm Palantir to discover connections between individuals, their addresses, and their property. "When you have large volumes of transactions, you can start to see patterns and associations," says Jimenez, who notes that Palantir's software allows authorities to see network connections in what he calls "a three-dimensional format."
Guliani, with the ACLU, claims bulk data sharing practices between law enforcement and federal authorities could unfairly net unauthorized immigrants in ICE criminal investigations for low-level immigration related offenses or simply for ties to others under investigation. "These databases may include information on people who have been arrested but not charged or arrested for protests," says Guliani, "And there's a concern that this is providing a wealth of data to ICE to implement new policy lots of states or localities are trying to resist."
The looming battle over immigrant data
ICE access to law enforcement data could be particularly important for ICE actions in so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, where immigration authorities say they must carry out more "at-large" arrests in light of local authorities' refusal to hold unauthorized immigrants who have been deemed deportable by ICE beyond their release dates. Information culled from local police databases, such as addresses, could be more important for these more logistically intensive operations, which sometimes target homes and public spaces. "Sanctuary policies make it hard," says Arnold, "You are going to have to put more people on research and have more people waiting at the back door, so it is becoming more labor intensive."
Liberal politicians like New York City mayor Bill De Blasio have promised to fight potential efforts by immigration authorities to access to local databases, referring specifically to New York City's municipal identification database. But law enforcement officials doubt any localities will actually move to cut off data from immigration authorities, especially when it comes to law enforcement information.
"Politicians do a lot of talking, but even if they tried to cut off databases, I'm sure ICE would find a back door," says Jimenez, who points out that information sharing also occurs between ICE and other federal law-enforcement agencies, who also utilize local law-enforcement data. "Are they really going to cut off access to the FBI, the Marshalls and everyone else, just to cut off ERO? It will be impossible to do that unless they want to become an island."
Guliani notes that the task of cutting of data flows to immigration authorities would not be easy, but that localities and states can take action by recrafting the agreements they've entered into with federal authorities. "It's very clear that DHS is trying to implement its policies by exploiting data and trying to get its hand on as much as possible," says Guliani. "So states and localities need to map out their flows of information to ICE and other components of the federal government who share with ICE, and create provisions about how this data will be used and protected so it is not used to harm undocumented communities."
How such efforts would affect local enforcement is still up for debate. Bill Kalaf, a former director of intelligence-led policing at the Mesa Police Department, who designed the state's law enforcement database, AZLink, says such attempts would harm law enforcement's ability to conduct investigations. "Criminals don't respect law enforcement boundaries, so why should information?" says Kalaf, who points out that this data is crucial to investigations into gang and other criminal activity. "I think it'd be a problem for law enforcement if people pull out their information."
Guliani, for her part, asserts that continued local data sharing with federal immigration authorities could deter residents in immigrant communities from sharing information crucial to law enforcement. "I don't think there is a simple solution, but for law enforcement, you don't want undocumented individuals to be afraid of calling or interacting, thinking information they give could be used for deportations," says Guliani.
George Joseph is a writer based in New York whose work appears in The Guardian, The Verge and CityLab. Follow him @georgejoseph94
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.