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. Detroit on Friday announced it was halting its Detroit ID program amid concerns applicant data could be shared with federal immigration officials. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Detroit is fully halting its municipal ID program and seeking another vendor to verify applicant identities after a report suggested a company working with the city could create “a serious privacy risk” for undocumented immigrants. 

The city in late June had stopped taking applications from people who do not have a Social Security number in response to the report that found federal immigration officials could potentially access data collected by third-party companies to target undocumented people. The program’s initial pause came two months after it relaunched following a two-year hiatus during the pandemic. 

Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. announced Friday that all Detroiters are now barred from applying and that the city will issue a new request for proposals for the program. The changes come after immigrant advocates argued that the temporary pause didn’t go far enough to protect all vulnerable Detroiters who might lack access to traditional identification cards and warned that trust in the program could decline among those who need it the most. 

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“Given the concerns being expressed by some members of the community, the Mayor supports the decision to suspend the program for now,” John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan, said in a Friday statement to BridgeDetroit. “It will give us an opportunity to re-engage with the same constituencies we did when the first developed the Detroit ID to look at how it can best be operated going forward, given the evolving concerns about cyber security.”

Christine Sauve, co-chair of the Detroit Immigration Task Force and a community engagement specialist with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, told BridgeDetroit that community groups had already been warning Detroiters not to sign up for the ID program. The task force met with the city’s Health Department to advocate against the city’s relationship with a third-party vendor and is seeking another meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan, who championed the program when it launched in 2016. 

“If you don’t want your information shared, you should not sign up for this program,” Sauve said.

MoCaFi, a New-York financial services company, was granted an emergency purchase order to verify the identity of applicants using public records databases. The Detroit Immigration Task Force raised concerns about the privacy of applicants after it was found that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement purchases access to LexisNexis databases used by MoCaFi to check the identity of Detroit ID applicants.

BridgeDetroit asked the city to provide a copy of the purchase order, but was told the documents would only be provided through a Freedom of Information Act request. Dan Austin, a spokesman for Detroit, said data associated with a waiting list for applicants who do not have Social Security numbers will be destroyed within the next 30 days. 

“Since the restart of the Detroit ID program in May 2022, the Health Department has diligently worked with MoCaFi to deliver a robust municipal ID product that is data-secure and privacy-sensitive,” Mallett said in a statement. “MoCaFi, despite being an excellent partner, agrees with the City that a suspension of the program, effective immediately, and a full restart of the initiative – including the issuance of an RFP – is the best pathway forward.”

Mallett said MoCaFi had assured the city it will not share or sell information to outside groups. Critics have said ICE is creating a surveillance dragnet through contracts with companies like LexisNexis that provide easily searchable databases of personal information pulled from legal documents and government records. 

“This is a mass surveillance enterprise,” Alli Finn, a senior researcher with the Immigrant Defense Project, told BridgeDetroit. “A lot of this data from contracts is bought up from private sources. A lot of these private sources are lobbying (the Department of Homeland Security) for these contracts to create the need for them as well … ICE uses this to create profiles of people to then target immigrants, communities of color, protesters and others.”

The Immigration Defense Project report co-authored with researchers from the Northeastern University School of Law found ICE purchases information from companies connected to municipal ID programs. The report was cited in a June 13 memo from Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero to city officials seeking clarification on how MoCaFi handles applicants’ data.

MoCaFi did not respond as of Friday to a request for comment about its relationship with ICE and LexisNexis. ICE officials acknowledged another request for comment Friday about how the federal agency uses public records databases but did not provide a response. Detroit’s program is modeled after a similar ID available in Washtenaw County, which does not have a relationship with MoCaFi.

Seydi Sarr is a Detroiter who immigrated from Senegal and founded the nonprofit African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs, which provides services to a large community of Black migrants who don’t speak English. She said she worries for a loved one who signed up to obtain a Detroit ID while they’re in the process of gaining citizenship. Sarr said she encouraged them to sign up for the ID “to walk safely in the city of Detroit,” but now feels she accidentally betrayed them. 

“For me it’s painful, because what side of my identity do you want me to choose?” Sarr said. “Do you want me to say ‘hey, this is great because Black people benefit from it,’ or do I cry over it because I’m an immigrant?”

Sarr says she’s been pushing the city to offer language services for non-English speakers, including a community of African immigrants who speak French. The controversy of Detroit’s ID program struck a blow to her trust in the city, Sarr said.

“I don’t think that there is a fundamental misunderstanding,” she said. “I think there is a fundamental not caring about immigrant communities.”

Elizabeth Orozco-Vasquez, CEO of Freedom House Detroit, said the Immigration Task Force was initially reluctant to raise alarm in the immigrant community but later decided to encourage people not to sign up for the ID program after feeling the city hadn’t addressed their concerns. 

Applicants seeking a Detroit ID must present a collection of documents that are assigned a point value and add up to verify an applicant’s identity and residency. Members of the immigration task force say this system worked well and was trusted by organizations that agreed to accept the ID. They don’t see the need for MoCaFi, or any other third-party group, to get involved. 

“This program was meant to reduce barriers,” Orozco-Vasquez said. “Adding an additional level of security, there was no reason for it. It was not necessary and it added more barriers.”

The city said 883 ID cards were issued since the program resumed on May 2. Sauve said the Immigration Task Force received assurance from the city’s Health Department on June 3 that the program would be put on hold after raising concerns. However, the program remained open to people without a Social Security number until the end of June and people who do have a Social Security number could still apply until this week, Sauve said. 

“At that point (of the June meeting with DHD), there had been as many as 200 people that had been registered with (MoCaFi). We were already concerned about that number of people being potentially exposed and wanted to make sure no one else was put at risk while the city was looking into the matter,” Sauve said. “Unfortunately, we’ve just learned that they never, in fact, paused the program and so another 600 people were registered. To me, it’s unconscionable that the city knowingly put more residents in harm’s way.”

The city has not notified ID recipients about the potential for their privacy expectations to not be met. Austin said the city received no complaints about the previous iteration of the program.

Sauve said noncitizens can obtain a Social Security number when applying for an immigrant visa and still risk being deported until their citizenship is obtained, so limiting the ID program to people with a Social Security number wouldn’t fully protect applicants. 

Mallett did not respond to a question from BridgeDetroit about whether any Detroiters had personal information accessed by ICE, but he did note in an email that the risk of an undocumented resident having personal information exposed to ICE is “low.”

Sauve and Orozco-Vasquez said Detroiters shouldn’t have to worry about ICE accessing their information, regardless of immigration status. The ID was meant to help seniors, formerly incarcerated residents, homeless residents, gender-nonconforming individuals and others who face problems proving their identity.

In a June 20 City Commission meeting, Mallett said the city was working with the Immigration Task Force to find a solution, but also warned severing the contract with MoCaFi and LexisNexis could harm the ID’s credibility. 

“We are prepared to simply have a system in place where if you have a Social Security number, we will give you an ID card that is fully verified,” Mallett said in June. “If you don’t, and we aren’t going to use LexisNexis because we don’t want a person to be subject to any kind of governmental interference, then the ID card is going to be our best representation that the person is who they say they are. 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.”

In a July 11 letter to Duggan, immigrant rights groups argued that the city risks creating a “two-tiered program” when cards issued to people without a Social Security number are considered less valid or secure. The task force also asked the city to pause the program and to refuse contracts with vendors that put people at risk by sharing personal information without their consent. 

Sauve said the groups were “looking for the mayor to stand up for our communities” and that it would be a “long road to rebuilding trust with the city among our immigrant communities.”

“Part of the design of the program is to make sure that all of the applicants are in one list so it would be harder for any nefarious actor to try and separate out a list of only undocumented immigrants,” Sauve added. “That’s another reason why the corporation counsel’s suggestion of separating them into a list of those with social security numbers and those without is extremely dangerous.”

Municipal IDs do not take the place of state-issued IDs. They aren’t a substitute for a driver’s license and don’t allow cardholders to vote, buy firearms, alcohol or cigarettes. The Detroit ID is accepted by city departments, utility companies, health care facilities, certain financial institutions and other places where official government ID is needed. It also allows cardholders to receive discounts at participating businesses.

“These programs are absolutely essential,” Finn said. “They must be safe and secure and they must be viewed as safe and secure by community members.”

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