By Joan Friedland, guest blogger
January 25, 2018
Immigrants’ rights advocates are concerned about how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the larger agency of which it’s a part, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS), use databases and information-sharing systems to target people for deportation. Advocates are particularly interested in understanding how ICE interacts with state and local law enforcement agencies and with state departments of motor vehicles (DMVs), fearing that even innocent contact with police or DMVs will put immigrants and their family members at risk of deportation.
Untangling the Immigration Enforcement Web: Basic Information for Advocates about Databases and Information-Sharing among Federal, State, and Local Agencies, a report published by NILC this past September, explores how some of these databases and information-sharing systems work. We’ve learned that there are no simple answers. There is instead a complex web of databases and information-sharing among federal, state, and local agencies that facilitates immigration enforcement. The report describes an intertwined set of databases, information-sharing systems, and informal relationships that don’t always require any formal collaboration or agreements between federal and state agencies.
How the Information-Sharing Works
Secure Communities. Sometimes there are technological connections between databases or systems, as in the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program. When police arrest someone, their fingerprints are checked automatically against both FBI and DHS databases. These databases are interoperable and, in effect, speak with each other. A “hit” can trigger removal proceedings against the arrested person. And this happens even in cities that have adopted policies that limit their role in immigration enforcement activities.
DMV databases. In some circumstances, ICE has access to information-sharing systems that allow it to tap into state databases. For example, ICE can use a state-owned network called Nlets and state criminal justice networks to obtain information about arrests and convictions, or to obtain information from DMV databases about a person, such as their home address or license plate number. ICE can use this information to decide whom to target for immigration enforcement and to locate the people it’s targeted.
National Crime Information Center database. Police also may have access to a federal database that can be used to trigger immigration enforcement. For example, officers on the beat can use the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database when they are seeking background information on a person they encounter in the field. Even though the NCIC is called a criminal database, it also includes civil immigration information, such as information about administrative arrests and deportations. Police can use this information, which is often inaccurate, to report individuals to ICE. And police officers who have authority to enforce immigration law under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act are explicitly granted access to federal databases as immigration enforcers.
Gang databases. Gang databases are illustrative of how inaccurate and misleading information can migrate from one federal or state database to another and can be used for immigration enforcement, with devastating effects. State and federal agencies, including ICE, use commercial database software called GangNET. This database contains notoriously inaccurate information about gangs and alleged gangs, including photos of individuals alleged to be gang members or associates. In a single search, government agencies can simultaneously search their own GangNET system and a network of GangNET systems in other states and federal agencies. ICE has its own Gang File that accesses GangNET and other investigative systems developed by private contractors. A Gang File in the FBI’s NCIC database provides information to state and local law enforcement, as well as to ICE.
Mobile biometric devices. ICE agents in the field, sometimes working with local police, use mobile devices to take biometrics such as fingerprints or photos of people they encounter, often profiling people based on how they look or act. They also rely on facial recognition systems owned by local police agencies. One ICE agent described how he ran an individual’s photo through the police’s facial recognition system after his “spidey senses” started “tingling” when he encountered the person—an MO guaranteed to exacerbate unjust profiling based on race or other factors. Biometrics taken in the field are checked against and stored in FBI and DHS databases, where they become available for future searches even if they did not result in an ICE arrest.
Informal communications. But the tangled web is comprised of more than merely technology. Informal communications between ICE and state and local agencies play a major role, too. For example, ICE agents might ask state DMV employees to run DMV photos through ICE’s facial recognition systems or to check the license plates associated with a particular address where agents suspect undocumented immigrants live. ICE agents might simply be given access to lists of foreign-born people who are being held in particular jails, or they may be allowed to enter jails to interview such individuals. Probation and parole officers often give ICE agents information about their probationers or parolees, or arrange for agents to detain them at their offices.
Joan Friedland is a NILC consultant and the primary author of our report “Untangling the Immigration Enforcement Web.” She formerly was a managing attorney at NILC.