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Advocates Raise Concerns About ICE Access To State Data

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Connecticut is rapidly emerging as one of the most progressive states in the nation on the issue of protecting its undocumented population. Governor Dannel Malloy has made a point of saying state law enforcement will not do the job of immigration agents in Connecticut. But there’s a seeming disconnect in one part of the state’s policy that has immigrants rights groups concerned. 

Law enforcement, like pretty much everything else these days, has become all about data. And Connecticut’s law enforcement community has built a tool called the COLLECT database, which contains information on just about every resident in Connecticut.

But it's not only Connecticut cops who can look at that information -- it’s also the personnel of about 20 different federal agencies, including the officers of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE.

“We know they have access to it, what we don’t know is what exactly that access looks like, and to what extent they’re able to utilize that database to execute pick ups, raids and enforcement actions,” said Alok Bhatt of the Connecticut Immigrants Rights Alliance.

COLLECT gathers together arrest records, court information, prison records, even law enforcement data from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

But even if you’ve never been involved with the criminal justice system, your name is likely still on COLLECT, because it also contains DMV records, and crucially, the names of every resident who has a driver’s-only license, the tool the state has used in recent years to license undocumented immigrants.

“So this program that was meant to help the undocumented community can now be flipped on its head and used to target them,” said Bhatt.

Credit Ryan Caron King
Ryan Caron King
Alok Bhatt of the Connecticut Immigrants Rights Alliance.

Under the Obama administration, ICE was largely tasked with targeting violent criminals for deportation.

But Donald Trump in a recent executive order, has given the agency a much wider brief, something that makes ICE’s access to state data more controversial.

"The fear is that there’s almost no holds barred, as to who among the undocumented population is susceptible to deportation," said Bhatt. "So that’s sown and heightened a lot of anxieties in the community."

Civil libertarians agree that the data issue is worrying.

Dan Barrett of the ACLU in Connecticut said his presumption is always, if the government can, it will.

"The danger, really, is it becomes sort of like a Facebook for picking people up," he told WNPR. "That especially the DMV records become like a citizen enumeration tool, where ICE has effectively a catalog of all the people in Connecticut, and can begin to kind of pick and choose who they want to target."

Credit Ryan Caron King
Ryan Caron King
Dan Barrett of the ACLU of Connecticut.

Barrett said if Connecticut wants to preserve its generally progressive stance on undocumented immigrants, it needs to stop up what he sees as a gaping hole in its defenses.

“It seems to me that one step to accomplishing that state policy is to say, I’m sorry, we’re simply not going to furnish the federal government with this data on an all you can eat, no questions asked basis,” he said.

But state officials vehemently disagree with this view of how COLLECT is used.

“Who has access to it, under what circumstances, is governed by federal law,” said Mike Lawlor, who navigates criminal justice issues for Governor Dannel Malloy.

He said the "all you can eat" metaphor is dead wrong.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Mike Lawlor, Connecticut's Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning.

“Each time someone queries COLLECT, who is making the inquiry is recorded, they need to have a proper credential to make that type of inquiry, and they have to be doing it for law enforcement purposes, in other words in connection with a specific investigation,” Lawlor said.

Lawlor said the concerns of immigrants rights groups that ICE could simply download one entire class of data -- like the names and addresses of everyone with a drivers only license -- is misplaced.

“Presumably, they could change, but the way the laws are written now, ICE cannot go in and sort of download all the data - they would have to make a specific inquiry for a specific purpose,” he said.

Lawlor is also concerned that cutting off the access of any one federal agency to COLLECT could set a dangerous precedent in the state.

“It’s a reciprocal agreement, so they have access to COLLECT, we have access to FBI databases, and all the other federal law enforcement and law enforcement in other states, so it seems like it would be very counterproductive to shut off our access to out of state criminal justice information,” he said.

“It is true Connecticut cannot unilaterally alter that contract, but it’s also true that like any agreement between two parties, the deal can be renegotiated when new circumstances arise,” said Michael Wishnie of Yale’s Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic.

In his view, not only can Connecticut think differently about its COLLECT database -- it should.

“Now that the federal government is changing their practices, Connecticut should reopen that contract, and renegotiate terms that protect Connecticut residents,” Wishnie said.

Wishnie is concerned that if that isn’t done, immigrant communities in the state may find themselves increasingly isolated.

“To the extent that state services start to become conditioned on providing information that will flow directly to federal immigration, the more Connecticut residents will be shut out of those service,” he said.

In response to questions from WNPR, ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer issued the following statement: “ICE, like most law enforcement agencies, routinely accesses shared law enforcement data systems across the country. Access to any law enforcement data system is restricted to.... specific individuals who are trained in their use and have a legitimate need-to-know concerning the information contained within.”

ICE said it does use DMV data to locate people who may pose a national security risk or public safety threat.

Immigrant advocates say they’re continuing to seek more information about how the agency is using Connecticut data, and whether it’s leading directly to detentions in the state.

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.

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