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A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. (Provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Colorado’s legislature will soon consider a bill that would limit the personal information state departments, including the Division of Motor Vehicles, can release to other government agencies, like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S Customs and Border Protection. 

A similar law in New York prompted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration and customs enforcement, last week to cut off residents in that state from enrolling in or renewing their access to so-called trusted traveler programs, like Global Entry. 

The programs allow people to bypass airport immigration and customs checkpoints if they pay a fee and undergo a background check. The Transportation Security Administration agency’s popular TSA PreCheck program is not affected. 

“I know other states are looking at laws like this,” Acting Deputy Department of Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said of New York’s law. “We would urge them to reconsider.”

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and the legislature’s fiercest immigrant advocate, is leading the push for the Colorado bill. She said she won’t be intimidated by ICE’s response to New York’s law and thinks the agency is using its power to make a political statement. 

“We’re in a moment in our country where apparently it’s OK to seek retribution, politically, against people for pursuing policy,” Gonzales said. “And all this bill is seeking to do is to protect people’s information, protect people’s private information that they give over to the state. ICE’s actions in New York look to me like the same type of retribution games that Donald Trump plays.”

The Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles says it does occasionally provide information to law enforcement agencies, including ICE. 

Immigrant advocates are fearful that, at a minimum, the information sharing discourages people from using Colorado’s program granting driver’s licenses to people living in the U.S. illegally. At worst, they worry people who get the licenses could become easy targets for immigration officers. 

Alethea Smock, a spokeswoman for ICE’s Denver office, said the agency doesn’t comment on proposed legislation. 

“However, ICE 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,” she said. “Introducing politics into law enforcement operations sets us back to the days before the homeland was attacked on 9/11 and ignores the important lessons that law enforcement learned out of that tragedy.”

Gonzales rejected immigration officials’ argument, especially the notion that her bill would affect information sharing and have national security consequences. 

“ICE is an agency that puts kids in cages,” she said. “They don’t get to lecture me on what justice looks like.”

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, speaks at a campaign event for Colorado Democrats in Denver on Oct. 23, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo described Homeland Security’s move in his state as “extortion.” The state has also sued the Trump administration over the spat, which has drawn congressional attention

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said his decision is purely about public safety. Without access to New York’s DMV database, Wolf says his agents can’t do background checks to make decisions about whether to grant someone enrollment into a program like Global Entry. An aggravated traffic offense or drunken driving conviction, he said, can make someone ineligible.

“Without access, we cannot run a proper security check and a risk assessment, and that is simply dangerous,” Wolf told Fox News. “This has nothing to do with illegal aliens receiving driver’s licenses. This has nothing to do with the sanctuary policies of New York. Both of those are misguided, in my opinion, but it has nothing to do with what’s occurring now.”

CNN asked Wolf if other states could face similar sanctions. Wolf said New York is the only state restricting Customs and Border Protection access to DMV data wholecloth.

The bill set for introduction in Colorado would limit CBP’s access to DMV data, though in a different way. 

It would prohibit a number of state agencies, including the Department of Revenue, where the Division of Motor Vehicles is housed, from sharing or allowing its information to be accessible to an outside agency that might use that data to investigate or enforce laws against people based on their immigration status, race, ethnicity, national origin religion and/or sexual orientation.

The Colorado Departments of Education, Higher Education, Labor and Employment and Health Care Policy and Financing, among others, would also be barred under the measure from disclosing that type of information. 

The information would still be obtainable through a warrant or subpoena if the Colorado legislation were signed into law. The bill would put the onus on state agencies to determine what information they can and can’t release to outside government agencies and then to report back to the legislature about the processes they create.

“This bill is broader (than New York’s),” said Arash Jahanian, director of police and civil rights litigation at the immigration-focused Meyer Law Office. “It is aimed at protecting personal information of Colorado residents, but it is not just limited to the DMV and it is not just limited to Homeland Security.”

Jahanian says people living in Colorado illegally are already anxious about interacting with the DMV. There are fears among immigrant advocates that ICE is using Colorado DMV information to locate and arrest immigrants. 

Colorado allows immigrants, both temporary and unlawful ones, to get a driver’s license. But it requires them to show up at a DMV office for an interview and have their personal information collected and stored by the state. 

New York and other states have similar programs granting people living in the U.S. illegally driver’s licenses. Both New Jersey and Nevada, which also allow people living in the U.S. unlawfully to get driver’s licenses, restrict DMV information from being released for the purposes of immigration enforcement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Colorado DMV says it doesn’t share its database of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who have driver’s licenses with federal immigration agents, but it does occasionally provide information to law enforcement agencies, including ICE.

“The general perception is that we feed large quantities of information to ICE,” said Julie Brooks, a Colorado DMV spokeswoman, “which is absolutely not the case.”

Brooks says, however, that the DMV’s Motor Vehicle Investigation Unit will work with, or notify ICE, when cases its investigators are pursuing might intersect with an ICE investigation in which criminal laws have been violated. That may include, in very rare circumstances, notifying federal immigration agents when someone is coming to meet with DMV investigators.

Hans Meyer, who runs the Meyer Law Office, said he wants to prevent that kind of information sharing from expanding amid the Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward people living in the U.S. unlawfully. “We know the intent of ICE is to not only manipulate state and local governments, but mine state and local governments for information,” he said.

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a Colorado Sun request for comment on Monday.

Gonzales said she expects the bill to be introduced this week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Updated on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, at 10:30 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Arash Jahanian‘s name.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul