ICE is tracking immigrants with the help of California sanctuary cities, court records show

An automated license plate reader is mounted on the back of an unmarked police car in Washington, D.C., in 2014.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

Civil rights groups in California want police and sheriff’s departments to stop sending license plate scanner information to a national private database, saying new public documents show federal immigration agents are using the system in breach of sanctuary state and city laws.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which obtained the documents as part of an open records lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is calling on lawmakers to request a statewide audit to review the data-sharing practices.

The collection of more than 1,000 pages of contracts, emails, manuals and other materials shows some California law enforcement departments have granted ICE unfettered access to the personal data of drivers and that federal officials are using it to track and locate immigrants in the country illegally who might not have criminal records and could be protected under the state’s sanctuary and privacy policies.


“We believe there has been a clear violation of the law and are calling for a proper investigation,” ACLU staff lawyer Vasudha Talla said. “The documents show a rogue [federal immigration] agency, and it has added mass surveillance to its toolbox.”

The case is the latest to raise concern among Democratic lawmakers and privacy groups, who say California’s laws are failing to limit the amount of personal data that federal immigration agents can use as the Trump administration has sought to ramp up deportations. Police, sheriffs and ICE agents argue that sharing information and collaboration is vital to criminal investigations.

The documents obtained by the ACLU provide the deepest look yet into the database run by Vigilant Solutions, one of the largest suppliers of data analysis software and equipment for police and sheriff’s departments across the country. They show more than 9,000 ICE agents nationwide have access to the Vigilant system through a $6.1-million contract with Thomson Reuters Special Services that was signed in December 2017 and runs through September 2020.

ICE officials in the agency’s criminal investigations branch and its civil enforcement division — including agents in sanctuary cities such as San Francisco and San Jose — have access to the database, which agents began using last February.

Called the Law Enforcement Archival Reporting Network, it hosts information collected from license plate readers by local law enforcement agencies and commercial sources, including insurance, towing and parking companies. The cameras can be installed atop police cars, road signs or bridges, function at high speeds and capture photographs of passing license plates, creating a detailed roadmap of the time, date and locations a person has traveled.

The information can be stored for years, according to Vigilant.

The documents released Wednesday list more than 80 local law enforcement agencies nationwide that have granted ICE ongoing access to the database, including police in Union City near San Francisco, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department and the Merced Police Department.


Emails also show an ICE agent asking a La Habra police officer to run searches at an Orange County fusion center, where multiple law enforcement agencies work investigations.

“Will you please run AZ plate…?” the detective asked in an email. “I am only able to pull from commercial databases for now.”

It is unclear how many people ICE searched in the system have criminal records. But ACLU lawyers said ICE’s queries and privacy guidelines, which allow civil immigration enforcement officers to search the database for information up to five years old, show the agency circumvented internal privacy rules under the contract with Vigilant Solutions and state laws.

California’s “sanctuary state” law, which went into effect last year, prevents local police and sheriff’s departments from sharing information about the people they arrest, question and detain with federal law enforcement and immigration agencies unless a suspect has a prior criminal conviction from a list of more than 800 felony and misdemeanor crimes.

Another state law signed in 2015 requires law enforcement agencies across the state to maintain public privacy policies and usage guidelines on license plate readers and to keep reports on their use.

Calls and emails to Viglant, La Habra police and Orange County fusion center were not returned.


Matthew Bourke, a spokesman with ICE, said the agency limited the number of agents who could use the database and did not track or locate people not tied to a criminal or civil immigration investigation. He said users underwent training offered by the agency and the vendor and could be disciplined if they used the system in an inappropriate manner.

“ICE does not take enforcement action against any individual based solely on the information obtained [the database],” he added. “ICE personnel check the information against other investigative information, including information from government systems, before taking any action against the individual.”

Talla said the records revealed how law enforcement agencies in sanctuary cities and counties, which also limit collaboration between local government and federal immigration agencies, have little control over the information they share into the private database.

“If it doesn’t want to share with ICE, it might share with some other third parties that might give it to ICE,” Talla said.

The case comes amid broader battles in the California Legislature this year over a far-reaching consumer privacy law, the right of people to control their information and the role of tech companies in facilitating Trump’s immigration policies.

State legislators, city leaders and privacy advocates have sought to expand laws limiting the amount of personal information that flows to the federal government, saying Trump’s calls for more deportations and vetting initiatives target the public data of Muslim Americans, ethnic minorities and immigrants in the country illegally who pose no threat to the public.


Legislation introduced last month by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) would prohibit cities and counties across the state from entering into new contracts with any company that sells, mines or analyzes personal information for ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In Southern California, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said she is working with Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom to investigate claims that federal immigration agents might have been able to locate immigrants in the country illegally by searching a state government driver’s license database, even though they had no criminal history.

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