Legislators and Activists Urge for Strong Data Privacy Protection for Colorado Immigrants

Experts worry lack of trust in institutions keeps immigrants from getting vaccines, food and help

Immigrants in Colorado have been able to legally obtain state IDs and driver’s licenses, regardless of their immigration status. However, an immigrants rights group discovered last summer that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was obtaining data shared by immigrants to obtain IDs without warrants or subpoenas.

 Now, a coalition of Colorado immigrant groups and legislators are hoping to change that with a new bill aimed at protecting the personal information of all Coloradans.

Last year, through an open records request, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition found that “consistent and deliberate” communication took place between Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles employees and ICE agents. “Over 200 emails show staff in the DMV fraud investigations unit operating as unofficial deputized immigration officers by proactively helping ICE identify, surveil and detain individuals — in all instances without a warrant, order or subpoena.”

Gov. Jared Polis “and new leadership” at the DMV have made administrative changes to address the unsanctioned data sharing, according to the release. 

In May 2020, the governor established consistent data privacy practices within state departments and created restrictions on requests for personal information.

With the proposed legislation, lawmakers are hoping to make the guidance from the governor permanent in law, according to a press release from CIRC. The proposed law clarifies that an individual’s personal and private information can’t be shared with outside entities for the purpose of civil immigration enforcement purposes.

The legislation is sponsored by two Denver democrats, state Sen. Julie Gonzales and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez. Both hope to restore trust that has purportedly been lost by immigrants across the state by DMV actions.

“No Coloradan should have to fear that information they provide to the state will be used against them,” the press release states.

But immigration activists are worried about how the actions of the DMV and ICE may affect immigrants across Colorado.

Maria Albañil-Rangel, Immigrant Advocacy Coordinator with Tri-County Health Network, said the immigrant community is hesitant to access needed services such as public health benefits, mental health services or enrolling children in daycare. “There is always the question of: Who is going to have my information?” she said in a statement. 

“This is causing catastrophic effects on the immigrant community especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “No one should be in fear of accessing much needed services. There needs to be legislation to protect the rights and well-being of all Coloradans. We must build trust with our community.”

Arash Jahanian, director of policy and civil rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office, said he’s been working wih the coalition on this issue for over a year now. The purpose of the bill lies in community safety and well-being and puts processes in place to make sure that personal information of Coloradans is used to enhance safety.

“When Coloradans entrust the government with their personal information, they have expectations that information will be safe-guarded,” Jahanian said. “That expectation of privacy is from the state and federal constitutions.”

He said that residents don’t expect or deserve state officials to take that info and give it to ICE. Over the last four years, ICE “too often acts as a rogue agency, brazenly skirting our constitutional and legal protections, and instead using cruelty as a fundamental operating principle.”

When allowed, Jahanian said that ICE mines personal information from state agencies to the detriment of the community.

Processes grounded in law protect expectations and ensure that information isn’t divulged except in specific circumstances, such as prosecution of crimes, he said. This bill helps to separate those legitimate purposes from ICE actions.

“Under the bill, our personal information cannot be used for immigration enforcement, however, it can be disclosed when a state agency is presented with a warrant, subpoena or other order that has been signed by a judge,” he said. This level of independent review subjects requests for info to the constitutional safeguards around criminal laws.

Under existing guidance, including the recent governor’s guidance, ICE will continue to say it is investigating crimes when obtaining this personal information, according to Jahanian. This bill protects people and information from deceptive practices by ICE.

“The message is simple — if you have a legitimate law enforcement purpose that calls for this shroud of privacy to be lifted — then go to court and get a warrant,” he said. “And for the state officials content to play a part in federal immigration enforcement, the bill provides much needed accountability.”

Jahanian said the bill also sends a message to community members, that officials are there to serve with licenses, IDs and vaccines. It further discourages immigrants from “retreating to the shadows” and encourages them to remain full participants in Colorado communities.

Yesenia Beascochea, lead community organizer with the Center for Health Progress and immigrant from Mexico, was instrumental in getting Senate Bill 251 passed in 2013, according to Mann. She also serves on the board of the Pueblo Community Health Center.

Beascochea said it was difficult for her to see the outcomes of people apprehensive about sharing their information. Many people in Colorado willing to work within the system choose not to take care of immediate health care needs, and this is because institutions break trust with them. 

This bill’s protections are priorities for people now, she said. By limiting who feels comfortable with trying to obtain an ID, and therefore a COVID vaccine, “you’re messing with people’s health.” During the pandemic, she said it has become clearer than ever people do not trust the healthcare system to protect their personal information.

One example, Beascochea said, was that people have been afraid to get COVID tests. 

The information provided is very personal and puts them at risk for adverse actions, and with the vaccine becoming available, she’s afraid that many will simply not opt for one if the bill fails. She was also worried that immigrants may stop using food banks, out of fear that sharing personal information necessary to obtain the food might lead to adverse outcomes.

“It is our responsibility, in the state, to ensure that all Coloradans have trust in our state agencies,” Gonzales said. “That trust has been broken, and it’s on us to make it right.”

— Avery Martinez

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