Armed with new evidence that federal immigration officials accessed a state database of licensed Maryland drivers dozens of times in the last two years, state lawmakers are proposing legislation to limit their access in the future.
State and federal officials urged caution in response, suggesting retaliatory measures from the Trump administration could affect all Marylanders.
The bill, backed by Democrats, would force U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to get a warrant if they want to run images of targeted individuals through the Maryland Image Repository System, known as MIRS, which holds the motor vehicle records and driver’s license pictures of millions of residents and allows image comparisons using facial recognition software.
The bill also would require the state to track federal queries to the system moving forward.
Currently, any credentialed ICE agent can access that system remotely, and without a warrant. Last year, lawmakers obtained information from the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which maintains MIRS, that ICE officials had logged into the system 14 times in 2018 and 42 times in 2019. State officials said it was unclear how many searches were conducted after each log-in, or who was the subject of those searches.
ICE said Wednesday it “does not comment on proposed legislation,” but “has concerns about any state or local laws that limit the sharing and exchanging of critical information, or that protect criminals at the expense of the safety and security of law-abiding residents.”
Lawmakers and immigrant advocates say ICE appears to be using the system to go after a broad range of community members, including in Baltimore County and in the Washington region.
“We have seen certain cases where they didn’t have any sort of criminal record, but were targeted,” said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, the Baltimore region director for the immigrant advocacy organization CASA.
Three weeks ago, an ICE agent detaining a Rockville man at his home and in front of his family “stated that he had found him thanks to the MVA database,” Walther-Rodriguez said.
“This is an ongoing issue that we have been facing for years now.”
Harrison Rudolph, a senior associate at the Center on Privacy & Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center, which has tracked facial recognition programs nationwide and backs the bill, said a few other states have such databases and deal with ICE requests for data, but none appear to have provided such sweeping access as Maryland.
“Maryland allows any federal law enforcement officer with a particular type of credential to log directly into the facial recognition system,” he said. “That’s an unprecedented level of access.”
Couple that access with facial recognition software — which has been criticized for being error-prone, particularly when assessing people of color and women — and there is reason for concern, Rudolph said.
The Baltimore Sun wrote about immigrants’ concerns about the misuse of motor vehicle records in 2014, and about additional concerns related to the incorporation of facial recognition technology into the system in 2016. Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat and the new legislation’s lead sponsor in the House, said he crafted his bill based on that coverage and concerns raised by community members.
“Among a lot of legislators, there is broad agreement that ICE deportations of individuals who have not committed any crime — who are just here as undocumented individuals — shouldn’t happen," Stein said. “We should not be facilitating that by giving ICE access to the state’s database.”
Sen. Clarence Lam, a Baltimore-area Democrat and lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said it is only "intended to put a layer of protection in place to ensure that the database, when accessed by federal agents, is being accessed for appropriate reasons” — not to prevent legitimate law enforcement work.
“They just need to show a judge probable cause to be able to seek a warrant," he said. "If a judge signs off on that warrant, they can access the database.”
Being in the country without proper documentation is a civil offense, not a crime.
Maryland first approved special driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria in 2013, and since then more than 275,000 people without “lawful status in the United States” have signed up, state officials said. Immigrant communities saw the creation of the new licenses as a great victory, because being able to drive provides huge economic benefits to families.
Advocates and state officials also saw it as a way for the state to build trust in immigrant communities, said Walther-Rodriguez, something undermined by the sharing of records with ICE without warrants and without informing those signing up for the special licenses of the arrangement.
Backing the proposed legislation would be a good way for the state to mend the damage, Walther-Rodriguez said.
But the state has not taken that step. Instead, state officials have raised concerns that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security might retaliate against the state if the bill passes, as it did when New York passed legislation limiting ICE access to information in that state.
Earlier this month, DHS temporarily barred New Yorkers from enrolling in Global Entry and other programs aimed at getting travelers through borders and airport lines more quickly, citing a new law in that state that allows unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The so-called Green Light Law blocks agencies like ICE and Customs and Border Protection from accessing motor vehicle databases without a court order.
MVA Administrator Christine Nizer wrote in a letter to Maryland lawmakers ahead of two hearings Thursday on the bill in Annapolis that the Trump administration’s “posture towards states that are implementing laws to limit their access to records is uncertain,” and that the "potential implications should be considered in the deliberation of this legislation.”
ICE also cited the New York law, saying in a statement it “not only impedes ICE from identifying aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, but also blocks ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents who investigate crimes like child exploitation, human trafficking and drug smuggling, from accessing important public records critical to identifying criminal suspects.”
Stein and Lam said they were aware of the Trump administration’s response to the New York law, but feel they have more narrowly tailored the Maryland bill. They hope the Trump administration would notice the differences — including the Maryland bill’s focus on ICE alone, not on Customs and Border Protection.
Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for reduced immigration to the U.S., opposes the bill. He said it would inhibit legitimate law enforcement actions by ICE in Maryland and give drug smugglers and human traffickers more cover to operate in the state, including along the busy Interstate 95 corridor.
Arthur suggested that ICE agents are “targeting specific individuals” who deserve to be investigated, and should be provided all government resources to do that work.
“You can’t separate out one agency or another as it relates to national security and law enforcement,” he said.