a sign that says sanctuary city
A sign on eastbound Temple Avenue was photographed Monday, July 11, 2022, in Detroit, Mich. The city has a policy that prohibits police or city employees from asking about a residents’ immigration status. Some city officials and community organizations are concerned that undocumented Detroiters who have applied for Detroit IDs are at risk of having personal information shared with federal immigation officials. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Undocumented Detroiters can no longer receive identification cards created by the city to access essential services after it was discovered immigration officials might have access to the personal information of people who apply.

The Detroit ID program was temporarily closed to people without a Social Security number at the end of June in response to a report that found U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement officials purchase personal information from companies connected to municipal ID programs. Detroit’s Immigration Task Force, which pushed for the city ID program in 2016, is concerned that undocumented applicants and cardholders could be targeted by immigration officials.

District 6 City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who represents a significant community of undocumented residents in southwest Detroit and leads the immigration task force, said she’s seeking changes to ensure Detroiters can obtain services through the ID program without fear of being deported.

“There are people that really want this ID program and we also know that word has been getting around about this; organizations are already telling undocumented people not to sign up for the program,” Santiago-Romero told BridgeDetroit. “That’s not exactly what we wanted, because now people are going to fear (the program). That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid because that breaks trust and it makes it very hard for (undocumented Detroiters) to sign up in the first place.”

Luz Meza, a community advocate who also sits on the city’s immigration task force, noted that data privacy was a key concern raised when the program was originally being developed. An ordinance codifying the ID program states identifying information supplied by applicants should be kept confidential. Detroit has a policy that prohibits police and city employees from asking about residents’ immigration status unless it’s related to a crime, though police are permitted to cooperate with ICE when asked.

“This damages the purpose of the program,” Meza said. “Folks understand when they apply for public programs, information is going to the government, but this program was not intended to pinpoint the individuals and not share that information and become almost like a database of folks who might be in a certain situation.”

Undocumented Detroiters who waited two years to apply for a city-issued ID card during a pandemic-era program pause only had a couple of months to apply before applications were closed. The program came back on May 2.

Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. said the city does not keep a record of a person’s citizenship status and can’t say how many users of the Detroit ID program are undocumented. Mallett did not respond to a question about whether any Detroiters had personal information accessed by ICE, but did note in an email that the risk of an undocumented resident having personal information exposed to ICE is “low.”

Mallett said the program should again be available to all Detroiters regardless of Social Security number within the next 30 days.

“We are carefully managing the transmission of information and, as of now, are confident that robust data protections are in place,” Mallett said in an email.

Dan Austin, a city spokesman, confirmed the pause in issuing the IDs to some Detroiters came in response to concerns about the program’s vendor using LexisNexis to review applications, “which could have put the information before the aforementioned governmental agencies.” LexisNexis is a New York-based company that sells databases of legal information and public records.

“We did it out of an abundance of caution and are working on finding a way that wouldn’t potentially put undocumented Detroiters at risk,” Austin said in an email.

Austin said people without a Social Security number are excluded from applying for the IDs at this time “because we do not want to risk unintentionally compromising the safety and security of Detroiters.”

BridgeDetroit inquired with the ICE field office in Detroit about how it uses contracts with companies like LexisNexis to obtain information used in enforcement actions, but did not receive a response as of Tuesday.

Meanwhile, there remains a high demand for the alternative ID program. The city issued 8,000 Detroit IDs from the program’s launch in 2016 to 2020, and 883 were issued in the two-month window after the program resumed.

A wait list for undocumented Detroiters to reserve a place in line once the program restarts had more than 100 people at the end of last week, Austin said, which underscores the importance of working with the Immigration Task Force to find a solution.

A joint report published last winter by the Immigrant Defense Project and Northeastern University about privacy concerns related to municipal ID programs was cited in Detroit city documents about the temporary pause. The report states data collected by LexisNexis and MoCaFi, the New York-based financial services vendor for Detroit’s ID program, is sold to ICE through contracts with the federal agency.

Mallett said MoCaFi’s president assured the city there was “no sharing” of personal information with ICE. At a June 20 City Council committee meeting, Mallett stressed that MoCaFi agreed not to share or sell information with other entities.

Mallett said the city also asked MoCaFi not to use LexisNexis for identity verification if the company creates a record of searches connected to specific individuals. This, he said, will ensure there’s no database of undocumented Detroiters who apply for the ID.

Mallett said MoCaFi used Socure, a fraud prevention and identity verification startup, to verify the identity of three recent ID applicants who do not have a Social Security number. MoCaFi also uses a LexisNexis database to verify identities of applicants.

However, Mallett expressed concern over ditching LexisNexis entirely, saying the company provides a “clear gold standard” to verify an applicant’s identity. Preventing LexisNexis from verifying the identity of someone without a Social Security number could undermine the program, he said, because the city-issued ID could be viewed as a weaker form of verified identity.

“Something that we have to get ready for is that the acceptability of the ID is going to be sporadic and may not have the universal acceptance that we were hoping for,” Mallett said.

The report on municipal ID programs found that ICE agents have used LexisNexis data to issue immigration detainers and track down targeted individuals for arrest and deportation. Data brokers like LexisNexis have contracts with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies across the country. The report states these kinds of data sharing agreements “inevitably end up disproportionately affecting overpoliced communities.”

The entire state of Michigan is under the jurisdiction of ICE due to its proximity to the northern U.S. border with Canada. This allows ICE to make arrests, set up immigration checkpoints and work with local police to arrest undocumented migrants anywhere within a 100-mile radius of border zones.

The Detroit ID program, modeled after a similar effort in Washtenaw County, was a major win for Detroit’s Immigration Task Force and a coalition of civic, community and business leaders who supported a municipal ID option. Advocates have said municipal ID programs are important for people who face barriers to getting state IDs, like undocumented immigrants, returning citizens and people experiencing homelessness.

Detroit’s program was meant to help those residents access certain city services, open bank accounts and obtain discounts at more than 100 businesses across the city. Advocates now say they are worried that an erosion of trust in the program will push undocumented citizens back into the dark.

“The program came from a need from various populations who couldn’t do basic things like pick up their children from school because they didn’t have an identification to show the front office or connect their utilities, things like that,” Meza said. “It was meant to serve immigrant populations, folks who are facing housing instability and might not have an address and returning citizens who often also have a hard time accessing identification.”

Detroit’s municipal ID does not replace a driver’s license or state ID card, but it is recognized by the Detroit Police Department, other city departments and community organizations. The card is also accepted by utility companies, health care facilities and hospitals and at certain financial institutions. It does not authorize people to board airplanes, drive a car or purchase alcohol, cigarettes or firearms.

Applicants for the IDs must produce eligible documents to prove their identity, including birth certificates, marriage licenses, employment verification forms, tax returns, utility bills and rental agreements, among other forms of verification.

The cards are $10 for minors and seniors, and $25 for people over 18. The card expires after two years and can be renewed for $10.

Applications for Detroit IDs are processed by appointment at the Detroit Health Department, 100 Mack Avenue. Call (313) 774-5388 or visit detroitmi.gov/detroitid.

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