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Immigrant Rights Advocates Push Cook County To Find Out If ICE Is Using Data Brokers To Skirt Sanctuary City Ordinances

National Latinx and immigrant advocacy groups have raised alarms over how ICE is buying access to individuals' personal information.

Protesters march downtown July 10, 2020, to demand the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the defunding of the Chicago police.
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CHICAGO — County officials are probing how a federal contract to access a massive repository of people’s personal information may help immigration officials get around policies designed to protect undocumented residents.

Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya and several immigrant rights organizations held a public hearing last week in which the county’s Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee heard testimony from experts about how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses data from companies like LexisNexis.

ICE has a five-year contract with LexisNexis, which collects and sells information like people’s addresses, phone numbers, job histories, criminal and traffic records and family relationships.

LexisNexis inked a contract in March 2021 with ICE, allowing the federal agency to use the information for investigations into crimes like terrorism, drug smuggling, organized crime, child exploitation, human trafficking, weapons trafficking and other serious crimes, according to the company’s frequently asked questions page. The company offers similar services to other law enforcement agencies.

“Under the Biden Administration policies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not use the technology to track individuals that may have committed minor offenses. It is strictly used for identifying individuals with serious criminal backgrounds,” according to LexisNexis’ website. “LexisNexis Risk Solutions regularly monitors use of its technology by all customers and does regular checks and audits to ensure its services are being used for their intended purpose. Any misuses are investigated immediately and are stopped on discovery.”

But immigrants rights organizations and experts have increasingly questioned whether that’s the case.

A June story from The Intercept showed the federal agency accessed LexisNexis more than 1.2 million times in the first seven months of its contract with the company. Critics said that raises questions about if the feds are using the data for mass surveillance instead of only for identifying people with serious criminal histories.

Cook County and Chicago have sanctuary policies to prevent local authorities from collaborating with ICE on immigration crackdowns. But the feds’ contracts with companies like LexisNexis have created “loopholes” in which federal agents can access information, including real-time jail bookings, court dates and home addresses, Anaya said.

Cook County’s job is to be able “to protect this information and this data so that it’s not in turn utilized in a way where it’s turned over to other law enforcement agencies or other departments,” Anaya said.

In a statement, the Midwest deputy press secretary for ICE said its contract with LexisNexis “complies with all laws, policies and regulations that govern data collection, while appropriately respecting civil liberties and privacy interests.”

“The contract provides an investigative tool that allows the agency to manage information that assists with law enforcement investigations, to include national security and public safety cases, narcotics smuggling, transnational gang activity, child exploitation, human smuggling and trafficking, illegal exports of controlled technology and weapons, money laundering, financial fraud, cybercrime, and intellectual property theft,” the spokesperson said.

Credit: Ariel Cheung/DNAinfo Chicago
Chicagoans protest Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2016.

Anaya said it’s still unclear how LexisNexis has information on Cook County residents that ICE could access, but experts at the hearing suggested the county should review its own contracts with the company to determine what data local government turns over and whether it is being used as intended.

“This isn’t to say that that’s exactly what’s happening,” Anaya said. “But that’s what we’re trying to explore and understand. And that’s why we’re hoping to continue these conversations to be able to find those holes, because those loopholes are extremely important for us to close.”

A spokesperson for national Latinx advocacy group Mijente said the hearing was a step in the right direction, and the next steps are to continue digging into how Cook County is protecting its residents’ data.

“These data flows have to be stopped for the spirit of the [sanctuary] ordinance, which is to ensure safe communities where folks aren’t worried that because they have an appointment at the court, they’re going to be picked up by ICE,” they said.

A spokesperson for LexisNexis said the company “prides itself on the responsible use of data” and referred Block Club to the company’s FAQ page.

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