On September 22nd, 2016, the federal government’s Enforcement and Removal Office (ERO) — a subset of ICE and the country’s primary deportation force — published a disclosure regarding a deal it was securing with the state of Connecticut to allow ICE officials to access the state's police database. In the filing, the immigration agency was blunt in addressing the critical importance of the state data to ICE’s deportation officers.
“[W]ithout access to the system, ICE officers will not be able to locate and track illegal aliens,” the document reads. “No other organization maintains data necessary to complete this task efficiently but the State of Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.”
Connecticut’s law enforcement database is one of many state and local data systems across the country that play an important role in federal immigration authorities’ efforts to track and deport immigrants. Now that President Trump has taken the first steps toward fulfilling his promise of deporting millions of immigrants, such data-sharing arrangements, which have long been taken for granted, are coming under heightened scrutiny. Connecticut’s agreement, according to the funding document obtained by The Verge, aims to run until 2021 — through the entire first term of Trump’s presidency.
The case of Connecticut illustrates how deeply entangled these relationships have become. The state’s governor, Dannel Malloy, has gained a reputation for being one of the most pro-immigrant governors in the nation. In 2013, Malloy championed and signed the Trust Act, which limits ability of law enforcement in the state to comply with ICE requests to detain and hand over immigrants. Yet at the same time, Malloy’s state is sharing troves of information with ICE’s deportation force. Known as the Connecticut On-Line Law Enforcement Communications Teleprocessing system, or COLLECT, the police database gives its users access to state DMV data, court data, probation information, protective orders, boating certifications, hunting and fishing licenses, and other data.
This has distressed immigration advocates. Alok Bhatt, an activist with the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, expressed exasperation over Connecticut allowing ICE to use its police database.
“Connecticut's compliance with ICE's request crystallizes the State's complicity in destabilizing families and communities,” Bhatt said in an email after reviewing the ICE funding document. “Armed with this information, activists and advocates must strategize around and against these realities, and make our communities aware of the nature of this threat.”
The Verge asked Malloy for comment regarding his state’s role in providing data to ICE. A spokesperson for Malloy did not directly address the governor’s plans for COLLECT but said that Malloy “has met with a number of immigrant groups since President Trump took office and is working on additional avenues to ensure that the rights of all residents are protected – regardless of immigration status.” The office also underscored Malloy’s past and current advocacy for immigrants in the state. Malloy’s office also pointed the routine importance of data-sharing relating to COLLECT and emphasized that a function of COLLECT is to provide law enforcement access to an FBI database of national crime data.
“The COLLECT database is a shared database among local, state and federal agencies and is essential to protecting the residents of our state,” said Malloy spokesperson Chris Collibee in an email. “Every state participates in the sharing of information with other law enforcement agencies, including federal authorities.”
While much of the local law enforcement data that ICE uses is first given to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, ICE clearly prizes its direct access to state databases like COLLECT, which contains data not available in NCIC.
Michael J. Wishnie, a clinical law professor at Yale, has been looking into ICE's use of COLLECT for years and has discussed the partnership with state officials.
“I think there’s a lot of information in COLLECT that’s not in NCIC,” said Wishnie. "To date, the state of Connecticut has not to my knowledge attempted to renegotiate -- for instance to secure stronger protections for the use of state criminal records against immigration enforcement. It's a two-party contract. They can renegotiate terms on the face of the agreement."
Bhatt says that, even though the Trust Act limits the extent to which local authorities can physically hold an immigrant for potential removal by ICE, he has seen anecdotal evidence that the law can be circumvented by federal authorities who have extensive knowledge of goings-on in the state’s criminal justice system. By simply knowing when a targeted immigrant has a mandatory engagement with local or state law enforcement, Bhatt says, federal agents can locate and apprehend a subject. For instance ICE officials have shown up at jails to apprehend an immigrant they know is about to be released, says Bhatt, or federal agents will interdict immigrants on probation at mandatory meetings with parole officers or at court-ordered alcohol classes.
State court schedules are one category of information Wishnie thinks ICE is gaining access to through COLLECT. “We don’t have good data on this, but, anecdotally, ICE has been more present at state courthouses,” said Wishnie, “and I believe that they’re using COLLECT to identify people that are coming in for hearings.”
Connecticut is not the only state that has a long-standing information-sharing partnership with ICE that is now becoming more controversial in the Trump era. In recent years, the state of California has actively shared data with ICE via a database of suspected gang networks called CalGangs. Critics have alleged that the state system often contains inaccurate information that can cause immigrants who have no real gang affiliation to become swept up into ICE’s deportation proceedings.
While ICE’s collaboration with states across the country has been a largely murky subject, a 2010 disclosure by the Department of Homeland Security stated plainly that the immigration agency hopes to expand the exchange of gang affiliation information like that of CalGangs. “In the future, ICE anticipates accessing gang data from a variety of state and local law enforcement agencies,” the 2010 disclosure states, “via its existing connection to CalGangs.”
According to Adam Schwartz a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the CalGangs database is only one of multiple systems in California that he worries Trump’s immigration authorities could tap while carrying out a program of mass deportation.
As an example, Schwartz points to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS), a clearinghouse of state police information that connects to an array of other data systems held by law enforcement agencies, departments of motor vehicles, and other state offices. It’s unclear whether ICE has a direct portal into CLETS, but according to an August 2016 Department of Homeland Security disclosure, California allows CLETS data to be accessed by US Customs and Border Protection to supplement an intelligence system that the agency allows ICE to access.
“CLETS is a system that was created to facilitate criminal law enforcement in California, and we object to taking a database that was created for that purpose — for public safety, keeping people safe from crime — and transferring it over to a purpose for which it wasn’t created,” said Schwartz, whose group is supporting a bill pending in the state legislature to ban state law enforcement from sharing data with federal immigration authorities. “I cannot predict exactly what will happen after the enactment of this law but we would hope that ICE would not have access to databases like CLETS.”
For California, Connecticut, and other states, Wishnie says that politicians in the states likely have the ability to block this data from ICE. This could include, Wishnie says, categories of local law enforcement information that is first given to the FBI and then passed along to ICE.
"I believe they could say to the FBI: 'Okay we signed this years ago but now you're sharing fingerprints with ICE,'" Wishnie said. "'We want to renegotiate the terms of our data-sharing.'"
An ICE contracting document details the agency's need to access Connecticut's law enforcement database.
Spencer Woodman is a 2017 John Jay / H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow