In summary

U.S. Border Patrol has been purchasing data from San Diego area cities for years, skirting California sanctuary laws that restrict cooperation between local governments and immigration authorities. Political leaders have downplayed concerns, plowing forward on new programs that critics argue also increase surveillance.

California has led the country in limiting how local and state officials can share information with immigration agencies for enforcement purposes, but in San Diego, the Border Patrol quietly pays for backdoor access to millions of personal data from the San Diego Association of Governments, and public officials seem to be shrugging their shoulders.

The Automated Regional Justice Information System, or ARJIS, is a comprehensive network that includes “all municipalities in the county, as well as the County of San Diego” and “their representative law enforcement agencies,” and all are encouraged to share data across San Diego and Imperial counties.

KPBS recently uncovered that U.S. Customs and Border Protection in June paid SANDAG, a regional planning agency, $131,000 for Border Patrol to have access to this database. It has apparently been doing this since 2006. The agency’s Office of Field Operations also has a $22,800 contract with SANDAG that ends in September, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a $118,500 contract that lasts until June 2025.

Border Patrol has been widely criticized for flagrant human rights abuses and mistreatment of migrants. For its part, ICE also engages in questionable enforcement tactics that regularly separate working families.

SANDAG chairwoman Nora Vargas, a San Diego County supervisor, did not respond to questions last week about the contracts. Nor did any other SANDAG representative.

This is remarkable because San Diego law enforcement agencies are increasingly relying on surveillance technologies to help with enforcement. These tools generate enormous amounts of private data that could be analyzed on just about anyone who lives or travels through the San Diego region. 

Earlier this month the San Diego City Council approved a controversial smart streetlight camera system that will use 500 streetlights to combine footage they capture with data from automated license plate readers fixed onto city poles or police vehicles.

The city’s new Privacy Advisory Board unanimously rejected this first-of-its-kind data integration proposal in the country, expressing “significant substantive concerns” with vendor information, implementation and use policies, as well as impacts to privacy and civil liberties.

Most public speakers at the Aug. 1 city council meeting expressed concerns about privacy, distrust of the police in handling such sensitive information, and to what extent immigration authorities might access the data.

But at a press conference a day before, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria seemed to preemptively bash San Diego residents troubled about these enforcement tools, denying the use of surveillance technologies as controversial and wrongly suggested that critics were not concerned about holding people who commit crimes accountable.

Though the San Diego Police Department’s surveillance policy expressly states “(license plate reader) data shall never be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol for the purpose of enforcing immigration laws,” contracts with vendors have yet to be finalized. It is within those contracts where city officials will establish how requests and exchanges of information will take place with the ARJIS network, and if immigration agencies will have access to these databases. This is where public promises are tested.

A Border Patrol spokesperson declined to answer questions about how often the agency uses the ARJIS database and whether there are any auditing requirements overseeing how the data is used.

Seth Hall of the TRUST SD Coalition told me that use of these technologies has historically been secretive, and put people at risk of harmful treatment by police who use the technologies irresponsibly or in ways that violate our rights.

As for license plate reader and using smart camera technologies to gather data, “combining these technologies in a new, untested way layers on another alarming problem,” Hall said, “that fearful authorities are willing to treat us like lab rats in the experiments of tech companies and police.”

When The San Diego Union-Tribune uncovered in 2020 that Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego County, was voluntarily sharing its license plate data with Border Patrol and ICE investigators for years, outraged community members demanded the Chula Vista Police Department end the use of the technology.

Community members argued that Chula Vista was violating the spirit of the California Values Act, that since 2018, prohibited local and state police from using their resources to aid in immigration enforcement. Under the California law, police and sheriffs are not supposed to share personal information unless such information was already publicly available.

Chula Vista city officials were generally dismissive to public speakers and community organizations, referring to them as “overly-woke” when asking for oversight and transparency, even after the Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy admitted she was unaware such sharing was taking place. 

They seemed more concerned about not having their “SMART” city movement tarnished by community members than with answering their questions.

Ironically, Chula Vista shared its data with the Border Patrol and ICE while it had been designated as California’s first certified “Welcoming City,” a title reserved for favorable programs supporting migrants and refugees. Welcoming America, which operates the Welcoming City program, earlier this year wrote in a letter, “Had we known that this information was being shared, the assessment would have been noncompliant.”

I sat on Chula Vista’s Technology and Privacy Advisory Task Force, and our group met for months to develop policy recommendations to rectify Chula Vista’s cart-before-the-horse approach at adopting surveillance technologies without any guardrails to protect against improper use. We developed recommendations based on best practices, and presented model language for the ordinance, but city officials were only interested in a toothless internal memorandum.

In 1979, the San Diego Union ran a story introducing the ARJIS network, explaining how it was received with “mixed reactions” – some praising the potential for collaborative partnerships between the various law enforcement bodies in San Diego County, and others voicing fear for its “Big Brother” feel.

What remains true since then, is that public officials have yet to allay apprehensions about surveillance technologies when they undermine public processes meant to ensure oversight and transparency. It gives unaccountable agencies, like Border Patrol, unfettered access to information that should remain out of their reach.

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Pedro Rios is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border program and a longtime human rights advocate. His columns have appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune and Washington...