SANDAG database puts immigrants at risk, advocates say

Immigrant advocates in San Diego claim that a relatively unknown contract between federal immigration authorities and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is putting immigrants at risk and violating the spirit of California’s sanctuary state laws.

The state’s sanctuary laws stem largely from the Trump administration’s hardline immigration enforcement policies that instilled a sense of fear in California’s immigrant communities.

Images of undocumented parents being arrested outside of schools caused immigrants to retreat into the shadows. As a result, there was a sharp decrease in crimes being reported by Latinos to local police during the early years of Trump’s presidency.

California lawmakers responded by passing a series of laws that limit cooperation between local and federal law enforcement. The goal of these laws is to make it less likely that an immigrant will be deported if they report a crime or are involved in a minor crime or infraction.

One such law, SB 54, was passed in 2017 and states that trust between communities and local law enforcement agencies, “is threatened when state and local agencies are entangled with federal immigration enforcement.”

In June, SANDAG accepted $131,000 from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for access to its ARJIS criminal database. Records show CBP had access since at least 2006.

This database contains data from every law enforcement agency in San Diego County. This includes traffic citations, arrests, field interviews and license plate reader data.

Advocates say SANDAG’s contract with CBP creates an unnecessary and dangerous connection for immigrants.

“We would argue in general that this entanglement, collusion between local law enforcement and federal immigration agencies across the board is going to lead to lack of community trust which makes all of us less safe,” said Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, policy director with Alliance San Diego, an immigrant advocacy group.

Minor crimes, major consequences

Although the ARJIS contract does not explicitly violate the sanctuary laws, experts say it puts San Diego’s immigrant community at risk of losing their legal status or even being deported.

“It means that the relationship between a person having an encounter with a local police officer and that encounter then becoming an immigration problem is increased,” said Cesar Cuauhtémoc Garcia Hernandez, a law professor from Ohio State University who studies the intersection of the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement.

Garcia Hernandez uses the term “crimmigration” to describe how seemingly minor interactions with local law enforcement result in immigration consequences.

The ARJIS contract was approved as part of the SANDAG annual budget. The agency’s policies do not require a public vote or discussion for these types of contracts.

ARJIS Director Anthony Ray declined an interview request, and SANDAG did not respond directly to community concerns about granting CBP access to the database. SANDAG Chairwoman Nora Vargas, who has been a strong advocate of San Diego’s immigrant communities and lobbied for SB 54, did not respond to questions.

There are some safeguards in place. State policies prohibit all law enforcement agencies, including CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), from using, “non-criminal history information,” contained within state databases like ARJIS for immigration.

However, experts say even limiting data to “criminal information” still puts immigrants at risk. This is especially true of minor, non-violent crimes that don’t end up in convictions, prosecutions or even arrests. Like being drunk in public or driving with an expired registration, Garcia Hernandez said.

He worries that this reality is being lost on local officials.

“From the perspective of elected officials, they have to think about what message it sends,” he said. “Because the ARJIS database is not limited to severe crimes. It’s not limited to one kind of crime or another. It’s a very wide range of encounters with criminal law enforcement agencies.”

Questions of oversight

It’s unclear how CBP personnel use the ARJIS database. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.

However, it is clear that they use it a lot. CBP has more than 200 active users, which is the highest among the 51 agencies with access to ARJIS, records show.

Another concern is the lack of oversight or enforcement mechanisms to ensure CBP does not misuse the database.

While SANDAG officials refused to be interviewed, the agency did respond in writing to questions about some of ARJIS’s safeguards and its compliance with state sanctuary laws. It pointed out several policies implemented in 2019 to reflect limits on cooperation between federal and local law enforcement on immigration issues.

ARJIS removed access to immigration-related records and deleted search terms like, “undocumented,” and “illegal alien.” The database also requires users to enter a valid reason, like a case number, for each search.

ARJIS also added this disclaimer to the platform: “Federal, state or local law enforcement agencies shall not use any non-criminal history information contained within this database for immigration enforcement purposes.”

Still, even with these safeguards, activists are concerned that CBP could simply ignore the rules.

“There’s a long history of abuse and impunity,” said Tsurumoto Grassi. “Not speaking necessarily just to databases but just in general. So, I think that’s something that has to be really considered, is this an agency we want to trust to have access?”

Tsurumoto Grassi referenced the 2019 incident when CBP personnel in San Diego used surveillance tools to spy on lawyers and humanitarian workers lending aid to the Central American migrant caravan.

She also mentioned CBP’s controversial, “shadow units,” that reportedly cover up wrongdoing when agents kill or use force in problematic ways. In 2022, nine members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of those units.

“What are the guardrails preventing them from accessing data from outside of what they are allowed to access,” Tsurumoto Grassi said.

Other experts say the issue goes beyond San Diego and that California as a whole does not have mechanisms to punish federal agencies that misuse databases.

“In general, what I’ve seen across California is that there’s not a lot of quality control going on in general,” said Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Maass goes on to say that agreements have memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that spell out terms and conditions, but few consequences if they are violated.

“It’s really an honor system, like investigate yourself and let us know how you violated it,” he said. “It’s not a particularly robust system.”

Preventative measures like requiring case numbers for each search are a step in the right direction but don’t go far enough, Maass said, adding that CBP and ICE have a reputation for misusing data.

In San Diego, an ICE agent used a federal database to spy on an ex-wife’s new boyfriend. It was one of 26 misconduct cases alleging database abuse in San Diego and Imperial counties between 2016 and 2019.

“Even if they agreed to do one thing, you can’t always trust them to stick to the rules,” he said.

An exchange between former San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore and County Supervisor Tara Lawson-Remer during the a 2021 community forum underscores the limits of local oversight over federal agencies.

The Sheriff’s Department does not share data directly with CBP, but it gives data to ARJIS. Lawson-Remer asked whether the department can be certain that other agencies aren’t misusing data, or if local agencies could even catch wrongdoing if it happened

“But how do we find out?” she asked.

“Sometimes you might not,” Gore said.

He continued: “If somebody picks up the phone and makes a call to somebody, I don’t know how you’re going to find that out. You do the best you can by educating your officers what the rules are. If you do find out, you handle that misconduct through investigation and appropriate disciplinary action. But I can’t sit here and guarantee it’s never happened.”

“So we don’t really have a good mechanism to monitor other agencies,” Lawson-Remer responded.

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