Immigrants sue ICE for spying on their financial records

U.S. immigration and border agents take a man into custody in Bell Gardens in 2020
U.S. immigration and border agents take a man into custody in Bell Gardens in 2020.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A U.S. senator recently revealed that for years Immigration and Customs Enforcement secretly spied on wire transfers of more than $500 to or from California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico without probable cause or a warrant.

Now immigrants who say their remittances to family abroad were caught up in what they described as a massive warrantless dragnet are suing the government and the wire-transfer behemoth Western Union, which gave money transfer records to law enforcement.

For the record:

11:38 a.m. Dec. 13, 2022An earlier version of this article said 200 million migrant workers in the United States rely on money transfer firms to send remittances to family members in their home countries. That is the worldwide number.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit: Law enforcement officials bragged in a PowerPoint presentation that they had tracked “suspicious” money transfers from people with “Middle Eastern names” or “Middle Eastern/Arabic names.”

ICE officials said they would not comment on pending litigation, but the agency said earlier this year that it had paused its requests for money transfer records.


“Our company takes its privacy and compliance responsibilities very seriously. As a matter of policy, however, we do not comment on pending civil litigation,” a Western Union spokesperson said late Monday. The company had previously said that it handed over the records in order to comply with a court order.

The new legal action stems from disclosures made earlier this year by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who said that ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations officials briefed his staff in February on the program. According to Wyden, ICE used a type of administrative subpoena to obtain approximately 6 million records about money transfers above $500 to or from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico since 2019.

Wyden supports targeted investigations into smugglers but opposes dragnet-style sweeps, he wrote in a March letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

“Instead of squandering resources collecting millions of transactions from people merely because they live or transact with individuals in a handful of Southwestern states or have relatives in Mexico, HSI and other agencies should focus their resources on individuals actually suspected of breaking the law,” he wrote.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by the advocacy organization Just Futures Law along with the law firm Edelson PC, claims that federal law enforcement officials were able to access millions of money transfer records from across the Southwest and conduct broad searches of the information without a warrant or court order.

The government failed to notify individuals that it had accessed their private information, the suit alleges.


“This dragnet has been operating under the radar with no public scrutiny,” said Yaman Salahi, an attorney at Edelson PC who filed the suit.

The sweep of information gathered by the dragnet violated individuals’ federal financial privacy rights, the lawsuit alleges. Lawyers seek to not only end federal access to the money-transfer data, but also force the government to delete the records it already has.

“The folks who tend to use these services tend to be unbanked people, oftentimes people of color or immigrant communities who do not have viable alternatives. Being put into a database where ICE has access puts those communities and people at risk,” said Daniel Werner, senior staff attorney at Just Futures Law. “ICE is basically infiltrating a central infrastructure that immigrant communities rely on.”

The immigrants who are suing the federal government and the companies were shocked to find out that their information had been accessed, the suit states.

Money transfer companies are used by immigrants to send remittances to family back home. Every year, roughly $30 billion is sent from the U.S. to Mexico, the lawsuit states, and 200 million migrant workers around the world rely on money transfer companies to send remittances to family members in their home countries.

The money transfer records that law enforcement officials could obtain included names, addresses, identification numbers and more.

Ismael Cordero, a Northern California man who regularly used to send money transfers to his family abroad, is among the plaintiffs in the case. He was worried that his information had been shared with law enforcement, and was not informed of the records being handed to law enforcement officials.

The lawsuit details how money transfer records have been sent to a database called Transaction Record Analysis Center that facilitates local, federal and state law enforcement access to bulk data, and that the database contains 145 million records in total. The database began in its current form in 2014, when the Arizona Financial Crimes Task Force, a group made up of Arizona law enforcement entities that DHS participated in, entered into an agreement with Western Union for the transaction data, the suit claims.

The lawsuit, which names other wire transfer companies as well, states that while ICE officials publicly said earlier this year that they no longer would issue the subpoenas, they were still able to access the database.

“It highlights the risks of these kinds of tools where there is not sufficient supervision or protections,” Salahi said. “To me, that’s nothing but racial stereotyping that can’t reliably produce leads or guide investigations.”