SINCE COMING TO the U.S. in 2018, 22-year-old Wendy has been extra cautious.

Wendy, a San Jose resident, entered the country as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Her husband, a construction worker, is also undocumented, as is her sister. Wendy’s full name is not being used to protect her identity.

“If any of us get deported, our family will be split up,” she said. “There are so many things to worry about.”

For undocumented immigrants like those in Wendy’s family, a traffic ticket can lead to deportation. Any run-in with law enforcement might get entered into a database through which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could track undocumented immigrants.

Wendy’s sister only drives whenever it is necessary to take her children to school or other places. She always takes the side streets in fear of being pulled over, Wendy said.

But Wendy’s family lives in what many consider a safe haven. Santa Clara County has touted itself as a progressive advocate for immigrants’ rights. It is one of just 14 California counties — about a quarter — that have passed additional protections for immigrants following a 2017 state law that made California a sanctuary state for immigrants.

“If you had asked me, ‘guess which county in California has the most contracts with ICE to share data,’ I would not have guessed one of the counties in the Bay that has large numbers of immigrants.”

Adam Schwartz, Electronic Frontier Foundation

“We don’t want our county governments, our local governments, to be working hand-in-glove with immigration officials,” said District 5 Supervisor Joe Simitian at a 2019 meeting where county leaders strengthened a policy of non-cooperation with ICE. “It undermines the trust and confidence of the community.”

But federal spending records show a different picture: one of a county that stands out for its history of contracting with immigration enforcement authorities, specifically allowing ICE access to criminal databases.

Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where both Google and Apple are headquartered, first passed a sanctuary policy banning cooperation with ICE in 2011.

The county’s sanctuary policy aims to protect undocumented immigrants who are being released from incarceration. Under the policy’s provisions, county law enforcement cannot directly notify ICE of these individuals’ release dates or hold them beyond their sentence for deportation.

Yet while enacting that policy, the county simultaneously allowed ICE access to criminal databases. This potentially allowed immigration officials access to data such as place of birth, address and vehicle information, making it easier for ICE to locate possible deportees.

Santa Clara County is one of just seven California counties that have signed data-sharing contracts with ICE. Since 2004, ICE signed 64 local data-sharing contracts across the state. Nearly one in three of them involved Santa Clara County.

“If you had asked me, ‘guess which county in California has the most contracts with ICE to share data,’ I would not have guessed one of the counties in the Bay that has large numbers of immigrants,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz. “Most of these communities have taken steps to be pro-immigrants. It is disappointing that … Santa Clara might be the outlier in having the most contracts sharing data with ICE.”

Playing nice with ICE

Santa Clara County signed 25 contracts with ICE from 2004 to 2019, federal spending records show. Of those contracts, 21 authorized the county to provide ICE access to local law enforcement databases. Three additional contracts lacked any description of their purpose. One additional contract was for the rental of a firearms range. Santa Clara County’s data-sharing agreements totaled nearly $107,000.

Current and past members of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors either declined or did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sacramento County, which had the second-highest number of contracts, entered into 15 agreements with ICE for a total of $60,640 over the same time period. All pertained to data-sharing.

One other governing body, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), signed fewer data-sharing contracts than Santa Clara County but was promised a larger amount of money — $435,830 for 12 data-sharing contracts with ICE from 2011-2019. SANDAG consists of representatives from 18 cities in the greater San Diego area and Board of Supervisors for San Diego County, which borders Mexico.

San Diego County did not have any contracts that mentioned data and is not reflected in the count of data-sharing contracts. However, the county signed three contracts with ICE pertaining to network access and three that allowed county task force officers to communicate with ICE via radio.

The California Values Act, the state’s sanctuary law, forbids ICE from using the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) for deportations. That’s the same data system that Santa Clara County opened up to ICE.

The sanctuary act also sets standards for local government agencies. Its provisions limit the transfer of inmates from county jails to ICE custody and hampers law enforcement agencies’ ability to notify immigration authorities about detained individuals.

Though the sanctuary law halted local government agencies from sharing data with ICE, some state agencies are left unhindered. For example, The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) routinely reports individuals in custody — including U.S. citizens — to the agency for deportation, a recent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report revealed. The ACLU of Northern California filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging the practice violates the rights of those in state custody.

“CDCR has had these practices in place for a really long time. This is not recent,” said ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Fellow Sana Singh. “And so, as we talk about the criminal legal system and its disproportionate impact on black and brown people, this is just an extension of that.”

Singh only spoke to the CDCR’s state-level practices and said she did not have enough insight at the local level to comment on Santa Clara County’s data-sharing history.

The California Department of Justice currently allows ICE access to its CLETS system, according to public records. But because of the California Values Act, ICE is prohibited from using the data to deport immigrants. Still, there are loopholes to obtaining and using the data, especially if someone has a criminal record, said Dave Maass, the investigations director of the EFF, a digital rights organization based in San Francisco.

“Even though there’s this prohibition on using this data for immigration enforcement, I would say that ICE and border patrol don’t necessarily have a great track record of following the rules,” Maass said. “And when they violate the rules, it’s really hard to hold them accountable.”

Officers with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division conduct a worksite enforcement operation in Canton, Mississippi on Aug. 7, 2019. In the first 15 years of its existence, ICE entered into 25 data-sharing contracts with Santa Clara County, contrary to the county's stated policy of non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities. (ICE via Pagransen)

Santa Clara County entered into its first contract with ICE in 2004, a year after the agency was established under the Department of Homeland Security.

The county signed an additional 24 contracts with ICE over the next 15 years.

Federal spending records between Santa Clara County and ICE primarily mention the sharing of two information systems: CLETS and Criminal Justice Information Control (CJIC).

CLETS is not a database itself, Maass said. For decades, the system has served as a statewide collector of various databases, including those operated by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, functioning akin to a search engine for police officers.

This makes it hard to know exactly what details the system holds, Maass said.

CJIC is a database local to Santa Clara County. The system contains arrest, criminal history and other personal identifiable information such as place of birth, according to a booking document presented at a County Board of Supervisors meeting in 2019.

Santa Clara County no longer tracks anyone’s place of birth or immigration status, said Assistant District Attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro in a recent interview. That way, if an undocumented resident needs law enforcement assistance, they can ask for it without fear, he added.

“We want to make sure that all people in our community, if they’ve been a victim of a crime, report that crime so that we can enforce the laws and protect people, regardless of their immigration status,” said Gibbons-Shapiro, who declined to comment on the county’s data-sharing contracts.

County policy shifts and contradictions

In October 2017, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Values Act, which was phased in over the course of 2018. The bill generally prohibits the state of California and local law enforcement agencies from collaborating with ICE.

“These are uncertain times for undocumented Californians and their families,” Brown wrote. “This bill strikes a balance that will protect public safety, while bringing a measure of comfort to those families who are now living in fear every day.”

But the summer after the act was passed, Santa Clara County signed two data-sharing contracts with the immigration agency.

Then, in February 2019, an undocumented immigrant allegedly murdered San Jose resident Bambi Larson. That spurred the county board of supervisors to revisit its sanctuary policy limiting collaboration with ICE.

Carlos Eduardo Arevalo Carranza, 24, an undocumented immigrant with a long criminal history, was arrested as a suspect in the murder of 59-year-old San Jose resident Bambi Larson at her home on Feb. 28, 2019. The case renewed debate over whether Santa Clara County should report the release of immigrants convicted of certain violent offenses to ICE officials. (San Jose Police Department via Pagransen)

Carlos Eduardo Arevalo Carranza, who was charged with her murder, had already racked up charges ranging from misdemeanors to violent felonies.

Court records show that Arevalo Carranza had been in and out of county jail for three years. Notifying ICE of his immigration status after one of those arrests may have prevented Larson’s death, argued police, prosecutors and then-San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

In the months following the murder, these officials lobbied the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to notify ICE when immigrants convicted of certain crimes were released from custody, even though this was against California’s sanctuary law.

At a June 2019 meeting, public comment on the issue lasted for more than three hours. The supervisors ultimately upheld an existing county policy that limited cooperation with ICE, citing the risks of sharing personal information about immigrants.

“No one has to persuade me that ICE is an agency, an entity, that all too often is a bad actor,” said Simitian shortly before the supervisors rejected the notification policy. “I don’t think that in my public service career I’ve ever described another agency other than ICE as institutionally racist.”

Yet at the time, the county was still sharing data with the federal agency. The county continued to do so for another six months, an analysis of public records shows.

And in July 2019 — just a month after voting to uphold its sanctuary policy — Santa Clara County entered into another data sharing contract with ICE.
The agreement remained in effect until December 2019. The county terminated that contract over concerns that ICE’s usage of county databases violates the California Values Act, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Immigrant Relations website.

When that final contract was terminated, the California Values Act had already been in effect for over a year. Santa Clara County may have had more contracts than other counties, but it wasn’t the only county to delay ending its contracts despite the state sanctuary law.

Kern County exited its final contract with ICE the same year. Sacramento County’s last data-sharing contract with the agency ended in 2020, and the San Diego Association of Governments’ final contract ended in 2021.

For Wendy and her family, they focus on something other than what the law of the land says.

“We always try to do things right to avoid problems,” she said.

A larger problem: The data’s still out there

This isn’t the first time that ICE has attempted to obtain and use data from local law enforcement agencies, said Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz. Though policy barriers in Santa Clara County and SB 54 ended the bulk of data sharing with the agency in California, ICE has continued to look for data in other jurisdictions with less stringent sanctuary laws. California is one of only 11 sanctuary states that have passed legislation preventing law enforcement agencies and local governments from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

Data sharing between federal government agencies and police agencies is common, but counties like Santa Clara have the power to refuse to participate, Schartz said. San Mateo County, which neighbors Santa Clara County, passed a new sanctuary policy earlier this year.

“At this point, San Mateo County is not sharing any information with ICE, as far as someone’s immigration status or any resources that help them pick up someone in San Mateo,” said Silicon Valley De-Bug Community Organizer Sarait Escorza. “There was a lot of mirroring Santa Clara’s policy.”

However, these sanctuary policies may not be enough to curb ICE’s access to information in law enforcement databases. According to a 2022 report from the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, ICE has collaborated with data brokers like LexisNexis and Appriss Solutions to access the same information that sanctuary states aimed to keep from them.

“They’ve found their way into government license plate databases, government driver license databases, they have found their way into energy consumption,” Schwartz said. “If there’s data out there that might help them locate an immigrant and deport them, they’re trying to get it.”

ICE is at the “cutting edge” of data surveillance, Schwartz said, and many law enforcement agencies “have played ball” even in locales where the public has tried to elect pro-immigrant leaders.

“This has been happening passively for a long time,” said Grisel Ruiz, Senior Managing Attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center about data sharing. “It’s going to continue happening, and it’s something that we just really need more transparency on.”

This story was reported and written by Camryn Pak, Sierra Wells, Xavier Martinez, Anne Li and Ray Ostil as part of a Stanford University journalism class.

This story was produced by Big Local News at Stanford University.