Donald Trump’s aggressively anti-immigrant rhetoric was a touchstone of his 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and it translated into federal government policy from the moment he took office the following year.
Trump promised that as many as 3 million undocumented migrants around the country would be immediately deported before he was even sworn-in.
His ambitious plans to secure the border with Mexico, including building a wall to keep out immigrants, meant that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had to look for ways to do more without significantly increasing their budget.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into expanding ICE’s surveillance capabilities, and data mining in particular, to help it identify as many targets as possible for deportation, regardless of their criminality or otherwise.
With Trump’s term now over and pressure on his successor President Joe Biden to set a different course for the next four years, we have analyzed public finance data to create a comprehensive overview of ICE spending on surveillance technology and services under the previous administration.
During Trump’s White House tenure, ICE spent over half a billion dollars on contracts with private companies to gain access to vast commercial databases of personal information, to stockpile surveillance hardware and to translate countless hours of secretly-recorded conversations gathered via wiretaps.
It will be no simple task to rein in an agency that became radicalized under Trump.
After all, the inauguration of a new president does not mean millions of dollars of recently-acquired surveillance equipment will be immediately mothballed. Nor does it render null and void the 77 ongoing ICE surveillance contracts, some not due to end until 2024 or beyond and worth $240 million in total.
This pivot to surveillance raises many concerns.
It tramples over Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
The cruel irony is that much of this surveillance has simply made it easier to go after softer targets.
Many of ICE’s expensive data mining tools, for example, are most effective at picking up the digital paper trail left by the most otherwise law-abiding undocumented migrants, i.e. those who start businesses and buy homes, pay their taxes, apply for driver’s licenses, and send their kids to school.
Social media analytics also makes it easier to scoop up the “collaterals”, or immigrants who are not the original targets but are swept up during enforcement actions, that ICE agents were suddenly instructed to go after from day one of the Trump presidency.
Rather than keeping Americans safe from violent criminals, ICE’s tactics under the Trump crackdown ripped families apart and left communities shaken by the disappearance of friends and neighbors.
“The Trump administration’s stated policy [was] to target virtually any unauthorized immigrant – regardless of their length of residence in the U.S. or their social, economic and family ties to the U.S.” – Emily Ryo, Professor of Law and Sociology, USC.
This policy was a direct repudiation of the Obama administration’s second-term strict focus on criminals and recent arrivals over those who had already made a life for themselves and their families in the U.S.
In removing these so-called “handcuffs”, ICE has instead outsourced digital surveillance to private companies with little regulation or oversight, while militarizing its agents with physical surveillance gear more suited to fighting terrorists on foreign soil.
Under Trump, ICE built a machine to routinely pry into individuals’ personal lives at an industrial scale, often with the help of third parties, with minimal transparency.
This report shines a light on where taxpayers’ money has been spent in this area and which companies have profited, in the hope of inspiring a fully-informed debate about the future of immigration enforcement in the U.S.