ICE Gains Access to License Plate Data With Help From OC Law Enforcement

Photo by Eric Hood / OC Weekly
Putting the “ICE” in “license” plates / Photo by Eric Hood

By Jose Servin 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportation machine has a new tool of surveillance. An article in The Verge recently revealed a deal between ICE and a private company granting the agency access to a license plate recognition database that would help to track undocumented immigrants’ vehicles.

With this technology, ICE could hypothetically track where a person’s car has been in the past 5 years to establish patterns based off of information collected from police cars and toll booths. This practice is a predatory violation of privacy. But in a post-911 world, the Orwellian nightmare of domestic surveillance has become an acceptable practice.

The idea of ICE tracking people’s cars does more than just violate a person’s privacy. By creating this new form of surveillance through a contract with a private entity, ICE has increased its authority and scope without any sort of public accountability and without any form of congressional approval. This blatant power grab side steps the checks and balances set in government.

This is not some new tactic, though. ICE has been tracking license plates for years with the help of local police departments. A report published earlier by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit focused on digital rights, revealed that Orange, Anaheim, and Fountain Valley police departments have been providing ICE access to their license plate databases.

This collaboration between ICE and police departments exists despite the fact that cities like Anaheim consider themselves a “Welcoming City,” which is their watered-down approach at trying to be a “Sanctuary City.” And despite that, with the passage of SB 54, politicians have branded California a “Sanctuary State.” 

ICE’s work at tracking license plates comes as no surprise in a supposed blue state with pockets of red wherever money exists and it’s preferable for immigrants to exist as second-class citizens. The fact that these collaborations continue to occur in a state that claims to lead the charge in “progressive” policy (whatever that means now) demonstrates two major points that grassroots organizations must make clear to anyone running for office.

First is that the term and ideology of “progressive” is a failure because it only seeks to tweak the deportation machine. “Progressive” policies like SB 54 and “Welcoming City” policies still allow ICE to come in and tear apart our families. Second, just as the lines between all police agencies are blurring and local police agencies are complicit in ICE’s terror tactics, the lines must also be blurred in the world of activism.

Only through combining the work of electoral organizing with immigrant rights and police accountability activism can we begin to dismantle the police state that preys on our communities and treats us all as like a set of numbers and letters to be tracked.

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