Immigrants walk towards a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on June 17, 2021 in Roma, Texas. They had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum in the United States. Thermographic cameras are used for surveillance by the military and law enforcement. (Photo by John Moore / Getty Images)
In 2018, in my capacity as a lawyer, I took a few trips to Mexico to provide legal advice and legal accompaniment to refugees in Mexico who intended to seek political asylum in the United States. The border is a very tricky place to navigate. Our goal was to identify people who had clear claims to asylum and help them figure out how to safely and lawfully enter the United States, and assert their international right to be screened for protection.
At the time, the president was making a lot of hay about migrant caravans and framing the peaceful movement of thousands of Central Americans across Mexico as an invasion of the U.S. After one trip to Mexico when I gave a 10-second quote to NBC News, Fox News picked up the clip and ran a segment about American lawyers on the caravan. Fox implied we were abetting criminals and, essentially, participating in human trafficking. My law office received credible death threats. We had to get protection from the FBI.
It was also around this time that I started being stopped when I was crossing the border. It was never anything too dramatic. The few times it happened, I was pulled into secondary inspection, lightly interrogated, held for an hour or so, and then released on my way. It was eerie. I had many colleagues with far scarier, more disruptive experiences where they were held for hours, searched, asked invasive questions and separated from family. It became obvious that immigration activists and advocates were being surveilled and targeted by the U.S. government.
Investigations and lawsuits followed. My own organization sued for our files and the documents we received revealed that we were being surveilled and investigated by Customs and Border Protection in 2018 and 2019, and that on a number of occasions after returning from Mexico for social reasons, my associates were held for interrogation by CBP’s Tactical Terrorist Response unit.
Reading the file was chilling. It’s upsetting to know that your government is tracking you. I got the feeling that we were only scratching the surface.
I have been thinking about that period of my career more lately after the release of an extraordinary report documenting the extent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s network of surveillance of people living in the U.S.
“American Dragnet” is based on a two-year investigation by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology that scrutinized ICE’s records and documents received through Freedom of Information Act requests. The report concludes that the public should be aware and concerned that ICE has become an enormous, effective and unregulated surveillance agency in our country that has its eyes on everyone — not just people who might be vulnerable to deportation.
It’s worth remembering that ICE is a relatively new agency in the United States. It opened its doors in 2003 when the Department of Homeland Security was founded as a response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Previously, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had handled all the country’s immigration matters. The idea behind DHS was to create several agencies, each with a distinct focus to better carry out the mission of protecting U.S. national security.
ICE’s mission is enforcement. Its agents focus on the movement of people and goods within the United States. Its most public function is to identify and detain people who may be deportable from the United States. ICE arrests undocumented people at workplaces and jails, and in their homes, and puts them in detention centers. Detained people enter court proceedings where the agency lawyers proceed against them and argue for their deportation.
Finding people to arrest requires cooperation from other federal and state agencies. In a lot of places, ICE uses public criminal court records and cooperation with local law enforcement to locate undocumented people. These programs have contributed to the enormous numbers of yearly deportations that started with the Obama administration. It should shock no one to learn, though, that most undocumented immigrants don’t commit crimes and on top of that, many communities refuse to cooperate with ICE investigations. How then, does ICE find people they want to target for arrest?
According to “American Dragnet,” ICE uses third parties — utility companies, motor vehicle departments and private databases — to amass information and suss out who is undocumented in the U.S. While Americans may differ in opinion about whether that legally and ethically dubious surveillance strategy justifies finding immigrants to arrest or has any meaningful effect on our national security, the report is clear that it is not just immigrants who are being surveilled.
It’s everyone in our communities.
Here are some key findings:
According to the report, ICE has access to the driver’s license data of three out of four adults. ICE also tracks the movement of drivers in cities where 75% of U.S. adults live. They also have access to three-quarters of adults’ utility records. To put it another way: ICE is surveilling 75% of adults in the U.S. Chances are they are surveilling you.
One of the most troubling aspects of this surveillance, where it concerns immigrants and citizens alike, is that ICE is finding us through services that most of us must use to live, like driving and utilities.
We need heat and electricity and water and transportation. The unseen cost appears to be allowing ICE access to our personal information.
Who gave ICE permission to do this? Nobody. It seems that Congress and state authorities are about as unaware as the public of this massive overreach. Some states have attempted to reign in the sharing of information where the DMV is concerned, but in many cases, ICE found a workaround.
I do not want ICE surveilling me or my neighbors, immigrant or otherwise. I don’t know what other agencies ICE shares my information with, and I cannot see how this makes me safer. In fact, I would like Congress to surveil ICE and ask more questions of a law enforcement agency that would secretly monitor people living in the United States.
If we can’t find good answers to those questions, perhaps it is time to rethink ICE’s existence in this country. After all, the agency isn’t even 20-years-old, and just as quickly as our Congress created it, our representatives and senators ought to be able to dismantle it. A different department can be charged with protecting our national security — without spying on almost everyone who lives here.
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