The US Government Buys Data for Surveillance. For Immigrants, It's a Matter of Survival

Victor Guillén Febres, Karen Fierro Ruiz / Apr 18, 2024

United We Dream's Victor Guillén Febres and Karen Fierro Ruiz point to necessary reforms to close the 'data broker loophole.'

Across the United States, legislation targeting immigrant communities through the use of surveillance is on the rise, posing an existential threat to public safety. From ongoing efforts in the Senate this week to expand the federal government’s anti-immigrant warrantless spying through the reauthorization of FISA 702, a controversial surveillance program, to state-led assaults in places like Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Florida, one thing is clear: immigrant lives continue to be put at risk and used as political concessions.

These bad-faith, anti-immigrant political efforts work to outcast immigrants and rely on unethical practices to surveil them in the name of “national security.” Law enforcement agencies, from the federal to the state level, often gather personal data without proper authorization, exploiting what is referred to as the data broker loophole. For immigrant communities, this unchecked government power is often used as a deportation tool, enabling authorities to track, harass, and detain immigrants using their private information.

The data broker loophole allows government agencies to buy their way around the Fourth Amendment through purchases from data broker companies that collect personal information to create detailed profiles on users. To protect our constitutional rights, Congress must close the data broker loophole by continuing progress on the Fourth Amendment is Not for Sale Act, which passed the full House of Representatives yesterday. Agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should not be able to continue purchasing and weaponizing personal information through third-party vendors.

Immigrant communities are among of the most vulnerable communities online. Unchecked contracts between law enforcement agencies and public and private corporations, including tech and utility companies, social media platforms, banks, and data brokers, have left immigrant communities vulnerable to a tech battlefield where they are the targets. Only last year did the California Department of Justice declare it illegal for law enforcement to share license plate reader data with out-of-state and federal agencies. Prior to this, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that this data was illegally shared with hundreds of out-of-state agencies, including ICE. Immigrants often face a heightened risk of wrongful arrests, deportation, discrimination, and police brutality when their data is in the government's hands.

Over the last decade, law enforcement agencies like ICE and CBP have been using the lack of restrictions on databases to their advantage. According to disclosed federal court filings, ICE has used data obtained from social media, online marketplaces, and data from other federal agencies, commercial data brokers, car registrations, utility bills, and mailing addresses, among other records, to locate, arrest, and ultimately deport undocumented immigrants. This investigation practice blatantly ignores privacy, due process, and equal protection rights of immigrants and communities of color.

The increasing use of cutting-edge technologies to warrantlessly track and prosecute individuals is a cause for alarm for everyone. Biometric data, including fingerprints, facial features, and hand shape, is stored in databases that immigration agencies and the criminal justice system rely on. Research has revealed that not all data is accurate or dependable — particularly biometric data, which unreliably identifies people at alarming rates, particularly people of color. Factors such as changes in age, environment, illness, stress, occupational conditions, as well as potential biases in development can impact the accuracy of biometric data. This can result in wrongful arrests, extended detentions, and unjust convictions that violate the civil rights of immigrant communities. ICE has mistakenly identified nearly 3,000 citizens for deportation since 2002. Further empowering them with faulty technology will only exacerbate existing inequities.

The lack of regulation in databases and the presence of discriminatory algorithms create an environment where law enforcement agencies can weaponize anyone’s personal data, especially immigrant communities, to unjustly criminalize them without the need for a warrant. Through our deportation defense work at United We Dream, we have seen how these loopholes directly impact immigrant communities. For years, United We Dream members across the country, especially in Florida, Texas, and California, have personally witnessed how data and invasive government surveillance technologies target immigrants.

In Florida, our members have observed the expansion of ankle monitors, which have harmful physical and mental health impacts on individuals whom law enforcement forces to wear them. These monitors not only track the individual wearing them but also collect data that can identify other undocumented immigrants, placing mixed-status families at even greater risk. This practice has resulted in what ICE calls lateral arrests, effectively broadening their deportation authority through these tracking tools.

Similarly in Texas, there has been a notable rise in migrants reporting being targeted by government surveillance at airports, with US border and law enforcement agencies accessing their phone data and biometric data, both of which expedites an already overzealous and unjust detainment and deportation system. This could further risk stifling the freedom of movement for immigrants traveling within the states and could be exacerbated by algorithmic biases within facial recognition technology.

Growing government surveillance of Black, brown, and immigrant communities extends well beyond hypothetical privacy concerns. The devastating consequences of surveillance on the lives of millions of people who just want to live in safety, provide for their families, laugh and love, are real and can be deadly. Everybody deserves the freedom to live knowing they are safe and that they don’t have to constantly peer over the shoulder wondering if they’ll be targeted by law enforcement, or if something as simple as their information on a utility bill will be taken advantage of. It is imperative that the Senate categorically reject the expansion of warrantless spying on immigrant communities through the reauthorization of FISA 702. Instead, Congress should focus on passing legislation like the Fourth Amendment is Not for Sale Act, the Government Surveillance Reform Act, and the Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act that close the data broker loophole, and safeguard all communities from unjust surveillance.


Victor Guillén Febres
Víctor Guillén, MPP, is a seasoned advocate for immigrant rights with experience in disinformation defense and tech accountability. He currently serves as a Strategist for United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country. In this capacity, he plays a role in shaping the organi...
Karen Fierro Ruiz
Karen Fierro Ruiz is an advocacy and policy professional, immigrant youth organizer and activist of Mexican background living in San Diego, California. Currently, Karen works at United We Dream, where she manages leadership and political activation of undocumented immigrant youth. She holds a Bachel...