Last week, a leaked draft of an executive order from the Trump administration indicated that the administration might seek to deport undocumented immigrants determined to be a “public charge” — defined as someone who relies on certain federal, state, or local public assistance programs. This could mark a first step by the administration toward fulfilling president Trump’s pledge to rapidly deport millions of immigrants. Now activists and some officials across the country are scrambling to find ways that state governments can protect their undocumented residents.
For years, data sharing arrangements between state and federal agencies in charge of tracking, apprehending, and deporting immigrants have gone largely unnoticed. Some data systems, such as DMV information and police databases, are known to share data with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In addition to these, state agencies such as public benefit administrators also possess volumes of personal information that could be of potential use to federal authorities. Under the Trump administration, such arrangements, or even potential arrangements, are coming under increasing scrutiny.
Over the past week, The Verge has asked the governors of all 50 states as well as dozens of state legislators whether they are taking steps — or at least examining steps that might be taken — to shield data from Trump’s immigration officials or any agency seeking to build a Muslim registry. In all, only governors from three states provided The Verge with an indication that they would actively look into taking such measures: Washington, Oregon, and Vermont. The remaining 47 state governors either expressed support for Trump’s policy pledges, provided vague responses, or refused to respond.
In Washington state, which has taken a leading role in opposing President Trump’s controversial travel ban executive order, Governor Jay Inslee has ordered his policy and legal staff to conduct a review of data held by selected government agencies and determine whether any data useful to Trump’s deportation force could be shielded from the new administration.
Meanwhile, legislators in New York, Washington state, California, and Massachusetts have proposed laws to hide state data from the Trump administration. Last week Oregon governor Kate Brown issued a directive ordering that no state resources be used to create a Muslim registry. In response to The Verge’s questions about any additional steps being looked at to keep Oregon’s data away from the Trump administration, Brown’s office said that Governor “Brown is exploring further ways to protect Oregonians against polices [sic] that are not in line with our state’s values” and also pointed to a recent order by the governor to overhaul the state’s cyber security from outside attackers.
Only one Republican office contacted by The Verge indicated that it would look at potential steps to hide state data from the administration. Last week, Vermont’s Republican governor Phil Scott issued a press release criticizing President Trump’s travel ban and calling for the convening of a “civil rights and criminal justice” panel to examine ways the state could address the new political situation. Governor Scott’s spokesperson told The Verge that he is aware of concerns of deportation officials potentially using Vermont’s data, and said that the special panel would take up the issue.
The vast majority of states, including those with prominent Democratic governors, did not respond substantively to The Verge’s questions. When asked about any measures under examination to protect state data from Trump’s deportation officials or any agency seeking to build a Muslim registry, a spokesperson for Colorado Democratic governor John Hickenlooper said the office had “nothing to report right now.” The Democratic governors of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Montana provided no responses to The Verge’s questions. Executive branch staff in Minnesota, Hawaii, and Delaware supplied vague answers, mostly containing statements condemning Trump’s recent executive orders in categorical terms. California governor Jerry Brown’s office said that “the administration is actively monitoring these issues.” And a spokesperson for New York governor Andrew Cuomo pointed to a policy forbidding state agencies from asking about immigration status and indicated that New York state agencies keep no information that would be useful to Trump’s immigration authorities.
Only a handful of states under Republican control responded to The Verge’s questions. When asked about the use of state data for mass deportations or the potential building of a Muslim registry, a spokesperson for Alabama Republican governor Robert Bentley stated flatly: “The Governor is looking forward to working with the Trump administration.”
A spokesperson for Nevada’s moderate Republican governor Brian Sandoval appeared to take a dismissive attitude toward concerns that the new administration might seek to build a Muslim registry — a promise Trump made during the Republican primary.
“[Has] there been a proposal in the past 12 months or since he’s taken office?” asked Sandoval spokesperson Mari St. Martin in an email, referring to President Trump. “I’m not sure we’re going to respond to everything he’s proposed without a policy proposal now that he’s in office.”
Though St. Martin is correct that Trump himself has not pledged to build such a registry since he has taken office, privacy advocates consider a wide variety of data collection to be a real concern under Trump.
“We’re very anxious that the federal government in pursuit of undocumented immigrants is going to data-mine,” said Adam Schwartz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group, “that they’re going to go after databases held by everyone including state and local government.”
In New York state, some Republicans have already taken steps to ensure that federal authorities do have robust access to government data. In December, two Republican state lawmakers filed a lawsuit against New York City after Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a plan to delete a database of personal information relating to municipal IDs that had been marketed to undocumented immigrants.
A separate Republican lawmaker in New York state last month reportedly proposed a bill to require both public and privately run universities in the state to collect certain data on the nationality and number of foreign-born students enrolled in educational programs, although the bill stipulates the state would not collect personally identifying information on such students.
New York State Assembly member Dean Murray said efforts to limit the collection of immigration data would impede the mission of law enforcement.
“We pass laws for a reason — we pass laws to protect the public. Now we’re asking our local law enforcement to just completely ignore some of those laws,” he told Politico. “That’s a problem. This is a matter of law. We need to allow law enforcement to work together to enforce all laws.”