House bill threatens to expand reliance on secret databases in immigration enforcement

September 13, 2017 — Members of the House Judiciary Committee are fast-tracking legislation this week that risks expanding secretive immigration enforcement practices and increasing the government’s reliance on unreliable databases. The Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act (H.R. 3697) would give the Department of Homeland Security broad discretion to criminalize any group, club or association it believes connected to gang activity, and allows immigration authorities to target, detain and deport any undocumented individuals allegedly associated with that group. In doing so, the bill threatens to increase the government’s use of classified information as part of its gang designation process, as well as expand the reliance by Immigration and Customs Authority (ICE) on databases that often contain flawed information and lack proper oversight. 

The legislation includes troubling provisions at odds with government transparency and accountability, giving the Secretary of Homeland Security new authority to rely on classified information when determining who is or who is not a criminal.  Additionally, the bill would increase reliance on gang databases, widely criticized for their use of inconsistent definitions, improper documentation procedures, and inadequate oversight mechanisms. While police departments have long shared their gang intelligence with ICE, federal authorities are increasingly using these databases in regular immigration enforcement practices, leading to growing problems. In California, a state audit found that its gang database contained unsubstantiated entries, names that should have been purged long ago and other serious errors. Because of the lack of oversight and loose criteria often used by law enforcement to identify suspected gang members, lawsuits have been filed in cities across the country by individuals who say they were wrongly identified as gang members and detained by ICE as a result.

“The legislation comes at a time when open government advocates have identified a troubling trend of growing secrecy in immigration enforcement,” according to Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment. “Congress should focus on their oversight role and consider legislation that enhances sunlight and accountability, and not expand the government’s reliance on opaque databases to enforce immigration policies.”