ICE bought state driving records to track undocumented immigrants

If you drive, ICE knows.
If you drive, ICE knows.
Image: Courtesy Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via REUTERS
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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bought a year’s worth of access to North Carolina driver’s license data, which the agency used to identify and locate undocumented immigrants living in the state, for less than $27—about the cost of a large bucket of chicken at KFC.


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In total, the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division paid the Executive Office of the State of North Carolina just $26.50 for the 12-month arrangement, which began June 30, 2017. Though it was initially slated to cost a mere $100, ICE received a $73.50 refund when the contract was finally closed out at the end of November. (For comparison, it costs between $5 and $7 for an individual to obtain a copy of his or her driving record in North Carolina.) It is unknown if the arrangement resulted in any arrests or deportations.

“ICE has been mining state driving records for several years,” César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration lawyer and professor at the University of Denver, told Quartz. “Unlike many other government databases, driver license records include high-quality photographs matched with home addresses. [S]ome states allow unauthorized migrants to obtain driver’s licenses, making these records especially promising gold mines for ICE and problematic targets for migrants.”

More than a dozen US states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. North Carolina is not currently one of them. However, ICE has figured out how to use this to its advantage there.

“Cooperating with DMV to identify all denied license renewal applications (due to lacking proof of residency) would provide a significant foreign-born target base which could be vetted further to identify those with prior criminal convictions,” an internal ICE memo obtained by the nonprofit National Immigration Law Center (NILC) said of its operations in North Carolina.

Taken as a whole, the country’s various DMV databases contain records on more individuals than any single law enforcement directory. And when ICE agents want to locate someone, they often turn to driving records, which they consider more complete and up-to-date than the DHS address database, according to the Government Accountability Office. ICE ERO is in regular contact with state departments of motor vehicles both formally and informally, according to the nonprofit National Immigration Law Center, and has been able to get information submitted by people in their driver’s license applications as well as their driving histories.

But the intense enforcement may be doing more harm than good, in certain instances. In June, nearly two dozen Homeland Security Investigations agents wrote to then-DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, saying the Trump administration’s unrelenting focus on undocumented immigrants without serious criminal records was hampering their pursuit of terrorists, child abusers, and international crime rings.

Indeed, ICE arrested almost three times as many people without criminal convictions during US president Donald Trump’s first 14 months in office than it did during the 14 months prior, according to NBC News. This was due to an executive order Trump signed days after being sworn in, which ordered undocumented immigrants to be prosecuted whether or not they had committed a crime—entering the country illegally is an administrative, not criminal violation. Conversely, ICE devoted its resources during the Obama years largely to removing people with serious criminal histories.

A wide range of techniques

There is no overarching federal policy or guidance that ICE must follow in reviewing state driving records.

In Atlanta, ICE agents contacted the Georgia Department of Driver Services about mining its database for “duplicate photos with different biographic information on file,” ostensibly looking for undocumented drivers who obtained licenses using false identities. “The Atlanta Field Office will also attempt [to] gain access to any temporary driver licenses issued to foreign born applicants for possible leads.”

In New York, where undocumented immigrants are permitted to become licensed drivers, ICE discussed analyzing lists of drivers with Temporary Visa Restricted (TVR) licenses to “identify deportable aliens particularly those with criminal records.”

ICE spokesperson Britney Walker told Quartz that ICE agents “do not have direct access to DMV databases, and do not have the capability to conduct searches for potential and/or identified targets.” ICE has previously said it does not use DMV records to generate targets for deportation.

“During the course of an investigation, ICE has the ability to collaborate with external local, federal, and international agencies to obtain information that may assist in case completion and prosecution efforts,” Walker said. “This is an established procedure that is consistent with other law-enforcement agencies.” However, she said, the agency would not comment specifically on “investigative techniques, tactics, or tools.”

Beyond simple data mining, ICE has deployed facial recognition software to scan millions of driver’s license photos in Utah, Washington, and Vermont. Records obtained by the ACLU of Northern California reveal ICE’s use of automated license plate reader (ALPR) data, which provides real-time vehicle location information from a private vendor, Vigilant Solutions, as well as more than 80 police departments in multiple states.

Collateral consequences

GOP legislators in North Carolina have been working to outlaw sanctuary cities, a term for localities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities to protect immigrants from deportation. In April, North Carolina Republicans passed a bill forcing the state’s sheriffs to cooperate with ICE, which the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association strongly opposed.

Apparently, the citizenry did too. The sheriff of Mecklenburg County was voted out of office last year for partnering with ICE on the agency’s 287(g) program, in which undocumented immigrants apprehended by local law enforcement for unrelated crimes are held for immigration authorities.

Undocumented crime victims and witnesses are often reluctant to interact with police out of fear they will be turned over to ICE.

Last February, ICE detained at least 60 people who were not originally targeted by ICE, but happened to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

In the Raleigh area, an undocumented Mexican national who lived in the US for two decades sought sanctuary in a church for the better part of a year, but was arrested after venturing out to keep an appointment with federal immigration officials.

Earlier this year, seven North Carolina mayors called for an end to ICE raids in the state, saying they “destabilize neighborhoods, traumatize children, hurt many innocent people, and create distrust of law enforcement.”

“The negative collateral consequences of these raids on our cities is enormous,” the mayors said in a statement.

Even if accessing a state’s DMV records costs less than a couple of movie tickets, enforcing the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance policies is a waste of both money and time, said Camilla Townsend, a Rutgers University history professor with a focus on Latin America.

“ICE’s own statistics demonstrate that zero tolerance—meaning the harshest interpretation of the laws—hasn’t discouraged people,” Townsend told Quartz. “In the case of Honduras, for instance, in the midst of a drug-induced civil war, the numbers actually rose in 2018, after a year of such policies.”