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November 14, 2017; CityLab

NPQ has covered the development of sanctuary cities over the last two years. (Here, here, and here, as examples.) While sanctuary cities have a 40-year history, the intersection between increased data surveillance and the Trump administration’s racially biased practices have brought the movement to a new turn—the inclusion of data protection in an increasingly data-tracking world in what are being called “digital sanctuaries.”

ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has been relying on city-collected and publicly available data—some of which has been found to be racially biased—for immigration enforcement purposes. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra writes,

As the federal government increasingly relies on data from localities, some cities are developing protective policies that broaden the definition of “sanctuary.” While the term has long meant withholding some local cooperation for immigration enforcement, it is now starting to mean withholding some other data, too, to protect vulnerable communities—citizen and non-citizen—from the ever-growing surveillance dragnet. These policies seek to create what some advocates are calling “digital sanctuaries.” They aim to better define what data is gathered, by what means, and how it is used.


“Now cities are going to have to ask: What should we close? What should we segment? What should we purge? What should we put a time limit on? Says Greta Byrum, director of the Resilient Communities program at New America. “If they’re primary goal is to protect the rights of their residents, they may have to make different choices about what they do with the data.”

Misra points out that there has been a rapid advancement of biometric technology over the last few decades and that it has been beta-tested on vulnerable communities, such as immigrants, poor people, and people of color. Beginning in the Obama administration, when an immigrant entered the US, they basically consented to being tracked. Under Trump, these practices have expanded from the borders to the interior of the country. Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, says, “Previously, your body wasn’t tracked unless you were arrested by the police.”

In Trump’s January executive order, he announced that non-citizens would not benefit from federal laws on data sharing between agencies. In addition to the fears this induces about the DACA list (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), there are concerns about a new rule allowing the Department of Homeland Security to collect online information on immigrants, “including about their social media handles, connections, and search results.”

Among the sources ICE can pull from are local law enforcement repositories, DMV and benefits records, license plate reader data, FBI criminal databases, and student visa records. They also have access to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) database—the controversial “Muslim registry” of the Bush era…Local police also have increasingly used new technologies like stingrays and social media analytical tools—often disproportionally in minority neighborhoods or against protesters.

The Sunlight Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on how technology is used to increase equity and effective democratic participation, created a guide to help cities become digital sanctuaries. Some of the laws and proposals that build on the guide’s principles follow:

  1. Limit cooperation on federal terror agreements. Cities are not allowed to obstruct, but not required to assist.
  2. Eliminate gang databases. This is based on the principle of not creating specialized, personally-identifiable databases of vulnerable groups.
  3. Preemptively ban “Muslim” and other registries. Same principle described above about vulnerable groups.
  4. Purge municipal ID data. These are used by populations without documents, like immigrants, and people without homes; again, vulnerable populations.
  5. Publicly vet surveillance tools. Taxpayer money is used on these technologies, and the public has a right to know what they are and how they are used.
  6. Protect Internet privacy. This year, Congress changed Obama-era regulations that prevented service providers from storing search histories without their permission. The resultant detailed customer portraits have already had negative outcomes on vulnerable groups.

Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice, sums it up this way: “The broader point here is the Trump administration, when it comes to immigration enforcement, has been relying upon private companies to build the tools that they need. We need to be careful about what private companies are allowed and not allowed to do.”—Cyndi Suarez