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On July 3, 2018, Joel Hernandez-Centeno left his apartment in Escondido for work at the same time he always did, around 7:30 a.m.
A car behind him began flashing its lights. Hernandez-Centeno pulled over, and took out his vehicle registration and the license he had obtained a few years earlier under California’s AB 60, which allowed unauthorized immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
“I wasn’t scared of anything because I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. “I didn’t have any outstanding tickets. I wasn’t in a stolen vehicle.”
Then, the law enforcement officials identified themselves as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Hernandez-Centeno said they had a chart that had his information and a photo of him. The photo was the same one taken at the California Department of Motor Vehicles when he got his license.
According to Hernandez-Centeno’s arrest report, ICE had been trying to locate him for a while. He has no criminal history. The report cites two prior voluntary returns in 2005 and 2013. Voluntary returns are different from deportations in that they tend to only happen near the border for Mexican nationals and do not result in formal consequences like bars from trying to re-enter the country legally.
Hernandez-Centeno said he came to the United States when he was 12. He attended middle and high school in Escondido and has been working in the city since. He is married to a lawful permanent resident and has four U.S. citizen children.
In November 2017, ICE issued a warrant for his arrest, but according to the report, the agency made several failed attempts to find him. The lead described in the report was a vehicle registered to Hernandez-Centeno and the corresponding address.
The address was old, where Hernandez-Centeno lived when he got his license.
After several failed attempts to locate the vehicle at that address, “with additional systems accessible to ICE,” officials were able to locate his car at a different address in Escondido, according to the arrest report.
On the day they arrested him, agents noted a different car was parked in the spot – a work vehicle – at about 5 a.m., but saw Hernandez-Centeno’s car parked in a visitor’s spot. The agents wrote that they went to do some other business in Escondido and upon returning to Hernandez-Centeno’s address, noticed the work vehicle stopped at a light.
The agents followed the vehicle and pulled it over.
Hernandez-Centeno is not alone. He and others believe ICE arrested them with the assistance of DMV databases that made it easier to track them down. Their arrests underscore a long-standing concern from immigration advocates that laws intended to bring unauthorized immigrants in California out of the shadows expose them to federal immigration enforcement because of widespread database-sharing among law enforcement agencies.
On June 26, 2018, Miguel Soto and his brother were pulled over by immigration officials in Escondido on their way to work. Soto had gone to the DMV to get his license a couple years earlier. He gave them his information and they took his photo, but he didn’t pass the written test. He never got his license, but the DMV appears to have held on to that information.
When Soto was stopped, he noticed the immigration agents had his DMV photo.
“It was strange,” Soto said.
“The lead was discovered while conducting immigration checks in DHS/ICE systems as well as DHS/ICE accessible databases,” Soto’s arrest report says.
The morning Soto was arrested, according to his arrest report, the agents observed “two adult Hispanic males, one of them matching the height, weight and most recent DHS/ICE photograph of SOTO” leaving Soto’s apartment and getting into a car.
“This vehicle is registered to SOTO-Medina, Miguel, the ICE intended target,” the report reads.
Soto had no criminal history, but two voluntary returns, according to the arrest report.
Just a few days earlier, on June 22, in San Marcos, ICE agents arrested Missael Estevez. According to Estevez’s arrest report, agents also identified his home address by finding his vehicle parked outside.
Estevez also had no criminal history, but two voluntary returns to Mexico in 2003 and 2008, according to the report.
The San Diego Rapid Response Network, which operates a hotline people can call after interactions with immigration officials, said that around March 2018, when ICE conducted a large enforcement operation in San Diego County, they received at least five calls where it appeared DMV information had been used to track down individuals sought by ICE.
Last year, NBC 7 uncovered another case where a man was arrested by ICE agents who had a copy of his license.
The DMV database has become a particular concern since AB 60 was signed into law in 2013, which includes information about any unauthorized immigrant who applied for the licenses – even those who have no criminal history in the United States.
DMV officials said the agency does not maintain a separate database for driver’s license applicants under AB 60, nor does it maintain a digital image of the physical copies of the licenses or identification cards. Its records do not identify whether someone applied for a license under AB 60, nor is law enforcement allowed to conduct a blanket search for individuals based on license type, like AB 60 license-holders.
But DMV officials said there are three ways law enforcement, including ICE, can access “certain information from driver license or identification card records.” They can request them directly from the DMV via a requester account, or they can access the information through the state Department of Justice’s California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System and Cal-Photo programs, which interface with the DMV’s database.
CLETS is a system that links up multiple databases, including the DMV and Cal-Photo, a database that contains driver’s license photos.
DMV officials said documents applicants used to establish their identity, true full name, California residency or legal presence “are only available to law enforcement in response to a criminal subpoena, a court order, or a certification from law enforcement attesting to an urgent health or safety need for the release of the documents.” But by using those three methods, law enforcement can access information like a person’s name, date of birth, residence and/or mailing address, photos, conviction information, accidents and any licensing actions taken by the DMV.
“ICE agents do not have direct access to California DMV databases and they do not have the capability to solely search for AB 60 applicants or AB-60 licenses holders,” ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack wrote in an e-mail.
But Mack said she could not answer questions about how ICE uses CLETS or DMV databases to look up information about any individual for whom they already have a name or other information. Mack referred questions to the DMV, and said information related to how ICE conducts its investigations is sensitive.
In December 2018, the ACLU of Northern California and the National Immigration Law Center published a report detailing how DMV records are shared with federal immigration agencies.
In applying for access to CLETS and DMV information, Department of Homeland Security agencies – including ICE and Customs and Border Protection – attested that their purpose for tapping into the databases is criminal investigations. But once the agencies are granted access, they aren’t required to explain each individual inquiry.
The report found that the DMV and California DOJ didn’t keep copies of the individual requests by DHS for DMV information and that “they do not conduct meaningful audits of how DHS agencies justify the need for and the subsequent use of this information.”
Vasudha Talla, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, said that ICE could be using the databases to find addresses, driving records, vehicle registrations and other information about people they’re targeting.
“We have serious concerns about the use of state and local databases to facilitate ICE’s ability to find, arrest and deport people,” Talla said. “Data that is collected by localities for one reason shouldn’t be shared with ICE to be used for other reasons.”
Almost 40 offices of DHS agencies currently have access to California DMV records. They are mainly ICE Homeland Security Investigations offices, but also include ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, which handles interior immigration enforcement efforts, according to the report.
While it’s unclear how many immigration arrests have resulted from information accessed via DMV databases or CLETS, we do have an idea of how often DHS queries the systems.
The ACLU and NILC report found that between Jan. 1, 2017, and April 10, 2018, DHS agencies made 594 inquiries to the DMV driver’s license database and 1,085 inquiries to the DMV vehicle registration database by telephone.
A declaration filed in the federal government’s lawsuit against the state over SB 54 – a 2017 law that limits law enforcement participation in immigration enforcement activities – the chief of the California Justice Information Services, Joe Dominic, shed light on how often DHS uses CLETS. Dominic said that between Oc. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2017, DHS agencies collectively conducted 69,189 queries in CLETS. Between Jan. 1, 2018, and March 31, 2018, DHS agencies collectively conducted 89,223 queries in the system.
“SB 54 has not changed ICE or CBP’s access to the databases available in CLETS,” Dominic said in court documents. “The databases that are available via CLETS are maintained for criminal justice purposes only, and not for immigration enforcement purposes.”
In general, there hasn’t been strong oversight of who’s using CLETS, which has been around for decades, said Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy organization.
EFF has found rampant misuse of the CLETS system, including accessing the confidential data for domestic disputes and backgrounding online dates. There was even one case where an officer allegedly planned to hand sensitive information on witnesses to a family member of a convicted murderer.
“In our view, ICE using this system to investigate people for deportation purposes is questionable and should be investigated as a misuse,” Maass said.
“CLETS is available to all law enforcement agencies for criminal investigations purposes,” the California Department of Justice wrote in a statement. The agency referred all other questions to the DMV.
Earlier versions of the California Values Act did include stronger data privacy measures, but they were taken out of the final bill.
After Voice of San Diego told Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez about the cases of Hernandez-Centeno, Soto and Estevez, Gonzalez submitted an inquiry with the DMV regarding information-sharing with federal agencies. The agency responded to Gonzalez, and laid out what information should be protected and how federal law enforcement, like DHS, can access information through the government requester accounts, CLETS and Cal-Photo.
“I’ve already engaged the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to continue to work on this.”