From 2016 to August of 2022, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement used a controversial legal tool to demand information from San Diego County organizations over 500 times.
The tool, called a 1509 summons, is meant to gather information related to illegal imports, duties and customs investigations. But a database obtained through FOIA by Dhruv Mehrotra of WIRED and shared with Voice of San Diego showed that over a nearly six-year period, ICE issued more than 170,000 of the summonses across the country.
The summonses have been criticized by legal experts and immigration advocates as a way of bypassing the judicial oversight that comes with a warrant. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General reviewed a sample of summonses in response to public pushback and concluded in 2017 that 20 percent had been issued illegally or in violation of federal policy.
Pedro Gerson, an associate professor of law at California Western School of Law, said ICE’s work falls into two broad categories — policing goods and policing immigration — and the 1509 summonses are specifically reserved for the former. But some of the information requested suggests the agency is using summonses for the latter.
Gerson said the practice appears to be “a way to fish for … evidence to render someone deportable or inadmissible.”
The local recipients range from utility companies and nonprofits providing health and social services to correctional facilities and the county government. The summonses also targeted schools and sought data seemingly unrelated to their narrow purpose.
One such summons obtained by Voice was sent nearly two years ago to San Diego State University’s department of Student Health Services. The summons requested all records the university possessed about two individuals whose names are redacted.
On Oct. 6, 2021, a Homeland Security Investigations agent informally asked SDSU police for the “student enrollment status, class schedules, residence address, employment, phone numbers, campus registered vehicles” and medical records — specifically Covid vaccination status — of two students. The agent also demanded that the request be kept secret indefinitely.
He was then directed to Jessica Rentto, SDSU’s associate vice president of administration, who less than a week later offered to assist but only if the agent submitted a formal subpoena. “Given HIPAA and other privacy laws, we subject the university to liability if we disclose protected information without the appropriate documents,” she wrote in an email.
The agent obliged the following day. Rentto then forwarded the summons to SDSU’s directors of well-being and health promotion and student health services, with a request that the students not be notified of the records release.
One week later, according to email communications, SDSU gave the agent “about 75 pages” of documents related to the two students.
The HSI agent who approached SDSU was assigned to the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force. A spokesperson for HSI declined to comment on any ongoing investigations or investigative techniques.
It’s unclear what purpose the immunization records of two students could serve in a customs investigation, but just five days before the agent made the initial request to SDSU, the federal government added Covid vaccination as a prerequisite for immigrants seeking to become lawful permanent residents.
“If someone’s got a green card and they lied about immunization, that’s a layup in terms of … removing any immigration benefit or eventually deporting them,” Gerson said.
SDSU was not the only school that received a 1509 summons. Alliant International University, Carlsbad Unified School District, Grossmont College, San Dieguito Union High School District, Sweetwater Union High School District and Vista Unified School District also appeared in the database. Most went to the human resources department, but others went to admissions and financial and pupil services departments.
All but Sweetwater claimed to have no record of the summons.
The one sent to Sweetwater was addressed to the district’s general counsel and demanded information about every individual who’d accessed the cryptocurrency exchange site Binance — which was later accused of violating rules intended to stop money laundering — over a four-month period in 2018. The agent requested personal information, including social security numbers, photos and the names of parents or legal guardians of any and all users as well as their disciplinary records.
Matthew Guariglia, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Sweetwater subpoena exemplifies the wider problem with the way 1509 summons have been deployed across the country for years — in an overly broad manner to engage in the bulk collection of data.
“It’s supposed to be used only under very specific circumstances, but you see it as your kind of catch-all device for getting information out of all these agencies,” he said.
On its face, the subpoena doesn’t establish any grounds for reasonable suspicion. But the agent didn’t need to meet that bar because the 1509 summons is an administrative tool. It’s not held to the same standards as a criminal investigation, even though the information the subpoena unearths might be used in that manner later.
Gerson said immigration law is already stacked in favor of law enforcement without the checks and balances available in criminal matters. At a minimum, he added, the burden of proof should be on the agency “to show they’re not doing something nefarious.”
National reporting on this topic has also revealed customs summonses going to abortion clinics in Illinois and a youth soccer league in Texas. Other summonses have reportedly gone to journalists who’ve published stories critical of federal policy.
In most instances locally, it’s not clear what exactly the agents were looking for. Many of the organizations in receipt of a summons told Voice they were bound by a confidentiality agreement to keep the documentation private.
Others said they turned federal agents down. In late 2021, a separate summons went to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency’s Epidemiology and Immunization Services Branch. But in an email, group communications manager Tim McClain said, “The County would not provide confidential HHSA records in response to such a subpoena.”
About half of all the summonses issued locally went to correctional facilities and utility providers, including Sempra Energy and SDG&E. ICE’s collection of utility customer data has been a particularly controversial subject, drawing condemnation from some members of Congress, who called it an abuse of privacy and power.
Similar complaints have been raised at the prospect of ICE acquiring personal data from schools and the effect that may have on students. That suspicion grew with the immigration crackdown ushered in by former-President Donald Trump, spurring schools locally, and across the nation, to pledge to resist requests by federal officials to share student information.
In 2017, Sweetwater’s board approved a policy vowing not to enter into agreements with law enforcement agencies “for immigration enforcement activities.”
Per district policy, any ICE administrative subpoenas for records are supposed to be forwarded to the superintendent and general counsel. Those officials are then expected to advise federal immigration authorities against sharing student records. The district is also expected to oppose any efforts by the federal government to enforce the subpoena in court, but will comply with any final court order on the matter.
In a statement, the district wrote “we were required by law to respond” to the summons, but it’s unclear exactly what that response may have entailed. “Based on the directions on the summons,” the statement continued, “SUHSD is not commenting further on the summons requests or responsive documents, if any, that were provided in response to this summons.”