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California’s new ‘sanctuary’ battle could keep immigrant data away from ICE

Students at a 2017 rally in Highland Park in support of SB 54. Legislation introduced by Democratic California Assemblyman Rob Bonta would prohibit cities and counties across the state from entering into new contracts with any company that sells, mines or analyzes personal information for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

After California’s “sanctuary state” law limited police from collaborating with federal immigration agents, one legislator wants to prevent local government from doing business with companies that he says help in the Trump administration’s “deportation machine.”

Legislation introduced by Democratic state Assemblyman Rob Bonta would prohibit cities and counties across the state from entering into new contracts with any company that sells, mines or analyzes personal information for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Bonta said he plans to expand the bill to include all federal immigration agencies and bar the state from signing contracts with companies that do business with them. But he argues that the proposal will be narrow enough in scope to prevent only deals with companies that collect data, provide support to immigrant detention facilities or engage in so-called extreme vetting programs, such as enhanced pre-screening or background checks.

“It is a way to put our public dollars where our values are,” Bonta said. “It is a way of putting pressure on vendors. They can decide to change their behavior or lose our business.”

The move could set off another clash with President Donald Trump, who is already fighting the state over its immigration policies and this month announced plans to cancel $929 million in federal funds for California’s high-speed rail project.

Tech companies, including Microsoft and Salesforce, have faced pressure to end their business with federal immigration agencies, and criticism over contracts that provide data processing powered by artificial intelligence, face recognition technology and software to scrub data across social media platforms.

Bonta’s Sanctuary State Contracting and Investment Act would prevent cities and counties from signing new contracts, extending old ones or investing in the stocks, bonds or securities of companies that work with federal immigration agencies. It assigns the California Department of Justice with investigating violations, each of which could carry a civil penalty of up to $5,000.

Some companies are unlikely to be affected because the legislation would allow waivers for local jurisdictions when there is no practical alternative to contracting with another business. That could include Microsoft, which dominates the market in providing city and county offices with computers and software, and Thomson-Reuters Westlaw, which provides research services for legal teams.

But among the corporations that privacy advocates say is unlikely to qualify for an exemption is Vigilant Solutions, which granted ICE access to its national license-plate reader database, according to a public contract. Law enforcement agencies that are its clients have since been flooded with what the company called an “onslaught” of information requests from privacy groups.

Another possible target is Silicon Valley’s Palantir Technologies, which as of last year had one of ICE’s most valuable contracts, according to federal spending reports. Among the services it has provided the agency is an “investigative case management” system that allows agents to search a person’s personal connections, addresses, schools attended, immigration history, biometric traits and criminal records, among other data.

Palantir also holds contracts with law enforcement agencies and has helped launch a homelessness initiative in Santa Clara County, a tech platform that mines court, shelter and medical records so social services providers can identify people who need help.

Lawmakers first started looking for ways to limit collaboration between state and local government and federal immigration agencies soon after Trump took office. Some city leaders and privacy advocates warned that the president’s efforts to increase deportations and that vetting initiatives would target Muslim-Americans and affect immigrants in the country illegally who pose no threat to the public.

Others worried that the sensitive government data of targeted groups could reach federal immigration agencies.

California’s sanctuary state law, which went into effect last year, limits state and local law enforcement agencies from holding, questioning or sharing information about people with federal immigration agents. Other state laws have limited law enforcement from sharing gang database information and prevented local government agencies from turning over sensitive data to immigration authorities without criminal warrants.

Opponents say Bonta’s bill would be a burden on cities and counties and harmful to investigations, including smuggling and human trafficking cases.

In Berkeley, City Council members are considering whether to adopt a similar local ordinance, and some warn that it could be costly. City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley wrote in a memo that the loss of certain data brokers could “impede officers from entering police reports” and hinder the city’s ability to perform legal research and audits, and administer other programs.

But the #DeportIce coalition, a group of 50 nonprofits including the American Civil Liberties Union of California and Oakland and Bay Area privacy groups, says cities and counties must shut off the “data pipes” to federal immigration agencies. Three cities have already rejected or tabled contracts — worth a total of at least $3 million — with Vigilant over similar concerns.

“We are not trying to put people out of business,” said Brian Hofer, co-founder of the coalition and chairman of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission. “We are trying to get businesses to change their practices.”


© 2019 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.