The process began with Obama, but the new administration is using technology designed for tracking down terrorists to surveil immigrants more than ever before.
In a leafy Detroit suburb last March, federal authorities raided a one-story brick house. Their target: Rudy Carcamo-Carranza, a 23-year-old restaurant worker from El Salvador with two deportation orders, a DUI, and a hit-and-run.
The incident would have seemed like a standard deportation case, except for a key detail unearthed by The Detroit News: The feds didn’t find Carcamo-Carranza through traditional detective work. They found him using a cell-site simulator, a powerful surveillance device developed for the global war on terror.
Five days after his election, Donald Trump announced his plan to quickly deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants—“people that are criminal,” “gang members,” “drug dealers.” How would he do it? How would he deport more people, more quickly, than any of his recent predecessors? The Carcamo-Carranza case suggests an answer: After 9/11, America spent untold sums to build tools to find enemy soldiers and terrorists. Those tools are now being used to find immigrants. And it won’t just be “bad hombres.”
There’s a lot to Trump’s tactics that are very old. Trump seeks to ban Muslim immigrants, spy on mosques, and subject Muslims to extreme border interrogations. In the Chinese exclusion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. government banned most Chinese immigrants, sent investigators to spy on their businesses, and subjected them to extreme border interrogations. In 2017, Trump allies defend the Muslim ban by saying it’s not a Muslim ban, but a geographic ban on people from certain “areas of the world.” In 1917, Congress banned Indian immigrants not by name, but by drawing a box around the region and calling it an “Asiatic Barred Zone.”
Still, there are key aspects to immigration enforcement under Trump that are frighteningly new, albeit some time in the making.
In 2000, when George W. Bush was elected, drones, face recognition, mobile fingerprint scanners, and cell-site simulators—which mimic cellphone towers to intercept phone data—were novel or non-existent. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its successor, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, immigration enforcement was a low-tech affair, mostly known for large worksite raids.
Under Barack Obama, ICE went high-tech. At the heart of that shift were biometrics: precise, digitized measurements of immigrants’ bodies. Obama ramped up a Bush-era program, Secure Communities, which sent booking fingerprints from local jails to the Department of Homeland Security, shunting hundreds of thousands of undocumented and legal immigrants, many arrested for minor offenses, into federal deportations.
Previously, federal use of biometrics in the field had focused on Iraq and Afghanistan; with a fingerprint or iris scan, soldiers could tell militants from civilians. In his final years, Obama hit the brakes on Secure Communities—but mobile biometrics trickled down anyways. ICE agents began to stop people in the street to scan their fingerprints. Authorities requested face-recognition searches of Vermont driver’s license photos, looking for visa overstays. Customs and Border Protection sought proposals for face-recognition enhanced drones that, mid-flight, would scan and identify people’s faces.
For all of these technical advances, however, Obama never unleashed his full surveillance powers on immigration enforcement inside the U.S.; most of Obama’s removals took place at the border. Under his Priority Enforcement Program, actions inside the country were primarily targeted against people with criminal records.
Donald Trump brings two fundamental changes. The first is animus. When Trump calls Mexican immigrants drug traffickers and rapists, when he says a judge cannot do his job because of his Mexican heritage, when he implies that Muslim immigrants are party to a vast, Islamist conspiracy (we have to “figure out what’s going on”), it could send a signal to rank and file immigration enforcement.
Second, Trump is starting to use his surveillance arsenal to its utmost legal and technical capacity—within the U.S. Shortly after Carcamo-Carranza’s arrest using a cell-site simulator, a DHS spokesperson clarified that the new “border” drones would not be limited to the border. Instead, the drones would be used wherever there is a “mission need,” a wink at DHS’s claim that the Border Patrol can conduct searches up to 100 miles from the actual border. Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, a prominent immigration attorney in Virginia, reports that since Trump’s inauguration, every one of his clients arrested by ICE has had their fingerprints scanned before being taken into custody.
Trump’s aggressive use of surveillance is not just about devices. It’s about data. On his fifth day in office, the president issued an executive order on immigration enforcement inside the U.S. Many focused on the fact that he was restoring Secure Communities, the fingerprint-sharing program of the Bush and Obama eras. Fewer noticed the short section, a few lines down, that revoked Privacy Act protections for non-citizens, making it easier for many federal agencies to share with ICE troves of data on legal and undocumented immigrants.
In the era of late-20th-century surveillance—beginning, loosely, with the final years of J. Edgar Hoover and ending with 9/11—there were limits, informal and formal, that focused America’s most powerful surveillance techniques on investigations of the most serious offenses. They were far from perfect, but they were real. The first was cost: It was expensive to “tail” people and track their movements. The second was legal. In 1968, Congress passed the Wiretap Act, which had at its core a simple idea: Wiretaps should be used to catch serious criminals, not petty offenders. You can’t wiretap a jaywalker; you can wiretap a bank robber.
Modern surveillance tools bypass these restraints. They bring the cost of surveillance down to a fraction of the original expense. They outpace federal lawmakers. State legislatures have passed dozens of laws restricting geolocation tracking, cell-site simulators, drones, and other technologies; Congress has passed zero such laws for criminal law enforcement, let alone ICE.
Most people caught in this dragnet will not be like Rudy Carcamo-Carranza. There are not, and never have been, 3 million undocumented criminals. Like his predecessors, most of the people Trump deports will be like Maribel Trujillo Diaz, Arino Massie, or Mario Hernandez-Delacruz: People innocent of any crime. And as Wade Henderson, a dean of the civil rights community, warned, Trump will have, at his disposal, “the greatest surveillance apparatus that this nation, and arguably the world, has ever known.”
In the public eye, Trump’s policies on health care, climate change, and foreign affairs have eclipsed his agenda on immigration. Perhaps people think it only affects immigrants. This is a mistake: Surveillance of immigrants has long paved the way for surveillance of everyone.
Biometrics are no exception. For years, the State Department let the FBI use face recognition to compare suspected criminals’ faces to those of visa applicants. In 2015, State and the FBI announced a pilot program to run these searches against the faces of Americans in passport photos. For years, Congress pressed DHS to use biometrics to track foreign nationals leaving the country. This year, DHS launched face scans through Delta and JetBlue—and both systems scan the faces of foreign nationals and citizens alike.