Roundups Human Rights

Here Are the State and Federal Databases That Could Hurt Immigrant Communities in Trump’s Administration

Tina Vasquez

From a flawed database that identified dozens of toddlers as gang members to an application process designed to provide deportation relief to young migrants, here are the systems that could hasten mass deportation efforts if used against immigrant communities.

While running for the nation’s highest office, President-elect Donald Trump made a series of promises that terrified marginalized communities.

He vowed to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and repeal programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), President Obama’s executive action on immigration that offers some migrants who arrived in the United States as children work permits and temporary relief from deportation. Trump also said he would ban Muslims from entering the United States (though he seems to have waffled some in his position) and would create a “watch list” to “defeat Islamic terrorism,” which many have interpreted to mean a registry of Muslims in the country or attempting to enter the country. 

Such a watch list wouldn’t be the first or last initiative of its kind, and these efforts often result in human rights violations and state violence against asylum seekers and immigrants.

As we inch closer to Inauguration Day and Trump’s first 100 days in office, it’s important to note the various systems already in place and how they could be used under the coming administration to cause long-lasting—and potentially irreversible—harm to migrants. From a flawed database that identified dozens of toddlers as gang members to an application process designed to provide deportation relief to young migrants, here are systems, past or present, that could hasten mass deportation efforts if used against immigrant communities. In some cases, migrants have handed over this information willingly for safety reasons, while in others, the information was captured forcibly or unknowingly.

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The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System

Launched in 2002 in direct response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) registered and tracked “mostly Arabs and Muslims,” as CNN reported. The program collected fingerprints, photographs, and other information of certain noncitizens taking up residence in the United States. NSEERS tracked male noncitizens ages 16 and older from North Korea and 24 other countries with majority Muslim populations.

It focused on young men, presumably because the administration felt this population would be most prone to terrorist activity. As CNN reported: George W. Bush’s administration “believed the program was necessary to identify and capture terrorists who might enter the country on false pretenses or already be living among the population.”

In 2011, President Obama took all 25 countries off the list, but its regulatory structure—and the database of individuals targeted by the program—remained intact until last month, after a nationwide push to remove the program entirely.

In November 2016, nearly 200 organizations co-signed a letter asking the current administration to abolish that structure before Trump takes office. The signers of the letter characterized the structure “as an ineffective counter-terrorism tool” that “resulted in tremendous harm for individuals who were directly affected.” Because of the system, the letter explains, 13,000 men who were forced to provide their information faced deportation charges, “families were torn apart, small businesses in immigrant neighborhoods closed their doors, and students discarded their educational aspirations.”

Human rights advocates estimate that, in total, the program registered and monitored more than 80,000 people. Despite the fact that NSEERS failed to result in a single terrorism conviction—and the fact that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called the program “redundant”—the incoming administration is reportedly considering replicating the program.

In anticipation of such a program, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Ed Markey (D-MA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) introduced last week the Protect American Families Act to “block the establishment of a registry of people based on their religion, race, age, gender, ethnicity, national origin, or nationality.” Should Trump’s team succeed in creating such a registry, it could further stigmatize and criminalize an already vulnerable population, while also leading to the mass deportation of Muslims.

Deferred Action

A recent report from Reuters revealed that in early December, Trump’s transition team requested information from DHS on “whether any migrant records have been changed for any reason, including for civil rights or civil liberties concerns.” A DHS official told Reuters the agency interpreted that request to mean “the transition team wanted to make sure that federal workers were not tampering with information to protect DACA recipients and other migrants from deportation.”

The team also asked about DHS’ ability to expand detention, signaling its immigration priorities ahead of Trump’s inauguration.

The president-elect has promised to revoke the DACA program, created in 2012. Some who have benefited from the program over the last four years could not have anticipated that the personal information they provided to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) just to apply for the program could be used against them under a different administration. But that’s exactly the concern being raised by advocates and DACA recipients.

Juan Escalante, a DACA recipient and an immigration activist, explained to Rewire last month, “[U.S. District Judge] Andrew Hanen already tried to get the information of those who benefited from this program—and this was well before the election.”

“Our information has been at risk, even though all of this [information] was supposed to be private and protected and not used as a database,” Escalante said.

As Rewire reported, DACA applications include highly personal questions about the applicant’s identity, immigration status, and their place of residence. The process also involves a background check and biometric data (such as fingerprints). More than 800,000 undocumented immigrants have provided this information to the federal government since the program launched.

Many advocates and public officials, including 111 members of Congress, have requested that Obama order the database deleted before the new administration takes office. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson also recently said that DACA recipients’ personal information should not be used to deport them, but he did not indicate whether the information would be deleted before Trump takes office.

In a recent interview with journalist Jorge Ramos, Johnson further explained that it has become a practice for administrations to “make a representation to the [immigrants] who applied for deferred action. We have told them—and I’m sure they relied on this information—that the information they provide will only be used for consideration of their application, except in extraordinary circumstances of public safety and national security. And I believe that’s a promise that our government should continue to adhere to.”

He continued that this “promise” precedes DACA, applying to people who’ve formally requested any form of deportation protection. “It’s my position that that promise [about the limited use of the information applicants provide] should be honored by whoever the next administration—the next president—is. This is something that goes back years, and it’s honored from administration to administration,” Johnson told Ramos.

Gang Databases

The United States’ immigration and criminal justice systems have become so intertwined that it’s almost impossible to separate them. The Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)’s National Gang Unit for example, forges partnerships between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement. What that means is that through this arm of ICE, local and state law enforcement agencies work with HSI to locate and, in many cases, deport suspected undocumented gang members.

In addition to the National Gang Unit, there are gang databases maintained by ICE and the states. As Ali Winston reported in a November article at The Intercept, “ICE’s system contains an unknown number of people, but there are more than 250,000 people in California’s and Texas’s gang databases alone, the majority of whom are Latino. These databases are populated with intelligence from street stops and arrests by local police, which is then uploaded and shared between agencies.”

Meanwhile, state-level gang databases can vary considerably from community to community and state to state, according to an NYU School of Law policy essay, mostly because law enforcement in the United States is decentralized.

In light of the impending administration, advocates in some states have been scrambling to block federal access to states’ gang databases “out of fears that the Trump administration will use it to deport unauthorized immigrants who’ve been erroneously labeled as gang members,” Yvette Cabrera of the Voice of OC reported in a December article. Advocates have not had much luck in California, where a recent audit of the CalGang database revealed rampant flaws, including the inclusion of 42 toddlers entered into the system before the age of 1.

The CalGang database contains information that may violate the privacy rights of those in the database, Cabrera noted. Perhaps more troubling, auditors of the CalGang database found instances in which local law enforcement put individuals in the database “without adequate evidence, failed to purge CalGang records that had not been updated within five years, and poorly implemented a state law requiring that juveniles and their parents are notified before the minor is placed in the database,” reported Cabrera.

The concern among immigrant rights’ advocates is that local law enforcement can enter individuals into their state’s gang database for subjective reasons, based on tattoos, styles of dress, and whether they were in a known gang area—all of which equates to profiling youth of color who live in heavily policed areas. For example, to be entered into the database in California, one must only meet two out of ten criteria, putting people who are not “criminals” or gang members in direct threat of deportation.

Under President Obama, there was an 87 percent increase in deportations of “convicted criminals” between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. This occurred mostly due to the way the administration widened what constituted “criminal behavior.” As FactCheck.org explained, “the 87 percent increase in the deportation of ‘convicted criminals’ was driven almost exclusively by those with a traffic violation (up 191 percent) and individuals convicted of immigration offenses (up 167 percent).”

Trump, who has said that he will have “zero tolerance for criminal aliens,” may look to further push the parameters of what it means to be a “criminal” in order to deport more people.

Driver’s Licenses

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have policies allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. However, the personal information provided in order to obtain this government document—including copies of birth certificates, foreign passports, and consular identification cards—could put the newly licensed at risk of deportation.

Jonathan Blazer, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU, told Rewire in a phone interview that there are two immediate concerns. The first is whether we will see more instances of ICE field offices using DMV databases to obtain information on undocumented immigrants who are deportation targets than we have previously. The second is whether the incoming administration will make an “unprecedented” move to obtain a list of every undocumented person in the country who has obtained a driver’s license (meaning not solely those ordered deported).

The problem is that we don’t know who exactly Trump will target. During his campaign, he called for deporting every undocumented person currently in the United States. Now he’s saying “criminal aliens,” which could mean any individual who’s had any interaction with the criminal justice system, even if they were acquitted or had charges dropped, Blazer told Rewire. If an individual is being targeted for deportation by the government, any information they have in the DMV database can be accessed by ICE.

“The extent of the information [federal agents] will have depends on the extent of the information entered into the DMV database by the state,” said Blazer. “It’s been a long-standing tool for state and federal law enforcement officials to use the DMV database to obtain information, like a home address, just by entering a person’s name.”

A December 8 report published at Mother Jones explained that in 2012, ICE’s Newark field office obtained a list of people who had applied for restricted licenses using valid but temporary immigration documents. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission handed over this information, which “resulted in the identification of numerous foreign-born individuals who fall under ICE priorities.” The same year in Atlanta, in an effort to achieve a “criminal-alien removal target,” ICE proposed an effort to obtain the names of foreign-born residents with temporary driver’s licenses. That project was not implemented, Patrick Lee, author of the Mother Jones report, noted.

“Whether a ‘deport them all’ president would request to see an entire list of undocumented individuals who’ve obtained driver’s licenses in a state is a different issue,” Blazer said. “This would not be something that has been done before and it couldn’t be done through existing information-sharing means. It would be an unprecedented request and guaranteed to be fought tooth and nail in a state like California. But in a state like Arizona, for example, there likely wouldn’t be such a fight.”

Indeed, California has issued some 800,000 licenses to undocumented immigrants. Many of the states who have these programs in place did so for public safety reasons, reported Lee. “These initiatives have been widely hailed as a reasonable way to try to improve public safety, by helping make sure that everyone behind the wheel was a competent driver,” Lee said.

If the DMV participated in these large-scale information shares with the Trump administration, Blazer explained, it would be with the understanding that it would have a damaging effect on programs with public safety goals in mind.

The bad news is that if you’re undocumented and have received a license from a state that offers them, there may be little you can do to protect your information from ICE.

“You can make the decision to move,” said Blazer. “You can basically change the relevance of the information by buying a new car with a new VIN, moving to different address, moving to a different state with different state plate on your car—all of this will make it so that the information the DMV has isn’t relevant or up to date,” Blazer said. “These are the tough decisions that the administration will be forcing undocumented immigrants to make about uprooting their lives. These aren’t things we’re advising and they’re not things immigration attorneys are recommending because right now … we don’t know what the Trump administration will try to do.”

At the moment, Blazer said, no fears are unfounded.

“People are rightly concerned about everything because of all the sweeping threats and rhetoric that emerged, especially when considering he’s nominated Jeff Sessions [for attorney general], who distinguished himself as one of the most anti-immigrant senators in recent memory,” Blazer said. “If the administration tries to take unprecedented steps to get access to information the federal government has generally abstained from using for deportation, all of these conversations will become more crucial.”

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