A little-noticed provision in one of President Trump’s executive orders this week stripped federal privacy protections from many immigrants, raising fears among advocacy groups that information people willingly submitted to the federal government during the Obama administration could now be used to help deport them.
Trump’s move, in a wide-ranging order on immigration enforcement issued Wednesday, marks a break from a policy dating to the administration of George W. Bush that had extended some Privacy Act protections to immigrants who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents. That included students, foreign workers, asylum seekers and undocumented people such as those known as “dreamers” who were brought to the United States as children.
The motive for the change remains unclear, and Trump has repeatedly sought to assure dreamers that he will treat them humanely. But the order removing privacy protections set off alarms among privacy and immigration advocates, who worry the move is a step toward aggressive new tactics by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the past the agency, known as ICE, has bristled regarding federal privacy rules as applied to undocumented immigrants.
Rights advocates said they would be particularly troubled if data collected by the Obama administration with the goal of helping dreamers avoid deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program now could be used to target them and their families for this or other enforcement actions.
More than 700,000 people participate in DACA, giving them temporary protection from deportation. The application requires submission of extensive personal information, including addresses, phone numbers, travel histories and schools attended. A government website explaining the program says the information would be “protected” from ICE in most circumstances but notes that this policy could be changed “at any time.”
ICE might have gained access to this information even without Trump’s order, but the removal of privacy protections clears away administrative hurdles, including the requirement that such access is formally documented.
“The U.S. shouldn’t do a bait-and-switch with sensitive personal data,” said Sarah St. Vincent of Human Rights Watch. “We have to be able to trust that the government will use and share that data only in the way it said it would.”
Despite Trump’s hard-edge rhetoric regarding immigrants, he has adopted a softer tone in the case of the dreamers. In an ABC News interview Wednesday, the president said: “They are here illegally. They shouldn’t be very worried. I do have a big heart. We’re going to take care of everybody. We’re going to have a very strong border. We’re going to have a very solid border. Where you have great people that are here that have done a good job, they should be far less worried.”
Administration officials familiar with Wednesday’s executive order, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations, said the goal was not to target people who have applied for DACA. Rather, they said, the purpose was to allow ICE to release more information about its operations to the public and to Congress.
The Privacy Act restrictions repealed Wednesday, for example, had prevented ICE from publicly disclosing the names of undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes in the United States and were arrested in roundups by federal agents, said the officials.
The restrictions also prevented ICE from reporting to Congress the names of undocumented immigrants released from detention facilities. Federal immigration officials have chafed under the restrictions, pointing out that other federal law enforcement agencies frequently release the names of people arrested or indicted.
Despite Trump’s campaign pledge to end DACA, it is unclear whether the administration will seek to dismantle the program. There was an internal administration debate on whether to roll out a provision ending DACA in Trump’s executive orders issued this week. Ultimately that was not included in the orders, although it may be in future executive actions, said administration officials.
Trump’s rhetoric already has immigration advocates on high alert. Neema Singh Guliani, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, warned that the removal of Privacy Act protections could have far-reaching consequences across the several federal agencies that deal with immigrants, and also could hinder their ability to gain access to their own federal files.
Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said there is a troubling historical precedent to the federal government collecting data for one purpose and then using it for another. During World War II, Congress allowed the U.S. War Department access to sensitive census data, including names and addresses, as it rounded up Japanese Americans for relocation into camps.
“If Donald Trump is using dreamers’ information against them for deportation, this would be the most brazen breach of trust since the Japanese internment,” said Bedoya.