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Politics and Government

Big idea: It may soon be illegal for Colorado to voluntarily share immigrants’ personal information with ICE

Immigrant communities have long feared their personal data will be used against them. Democrats want to prohibit sharing without a court order.

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Personal information privacy is a hot topic these days, especially within Colorado’s immigrant communities. Many people refrain from accessing basic services — including coronavirus tests and vaccines — for fear their information will be shared with immigration officials.

An upcoming bill seeks to assuage those fears. Sen. Julie Gonzales and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, both Denver Democrats, are prime sponsors of a bill that would prohibit the state from sharing personal data with federal agencies unless there is a court order. The details covered in the law range from age, birth date and driver’s license number, to tax records, fingerprints and handwriting.

Julie Gonzales. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The bill was announced in a virtual news conference Thursday and discussed during a Colorado Sun event previewing the 2021 legislative session. Gonzales was one of four lawmakers who, along with Gov. Jared Polis, shared their ideas for the session, which resumes Tuesday.

Gonzales intended to introduce the bill in the 2020 legislative session, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit. After an extended recess, legislators shuffled their priorities to address the direct impacts of the pandemic.

Polis issued guidance in May prohibiting state agencies from sharing personal data with federal agencies if the data would be used “solely related to federal immigration enforcement.” That is, Immigration and Customs Enforcement can request people’s data only if they have a valid search warrant or other court order.

The Colorado Sun invited Gov. Jared Polis and four state lawmakers to present their big ideas ahead of the 2021 legislative session during a virtual event on Feb. 11. Watch it here.

Gonzales called the governor’s guidance “an important step forward to acknowledge the harm that had been caused.” Now, she says, it’s time to codify it into law.

“That is the work ahead for us in this state — to restore that trust, and ensure that every Coloradan feels safe and feels confident in being able to access the resources and services they need for themselves and their families,” Gonzales said Thursday night.

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Gonzales’ proposal follows a 2013 law allowing people living in the U.S. illegally to apply for a driver’s license. Legislators wildly underestimated the program’s demand and a massive backlog piled up until a 2019 law increased the number of DMV locations offering the licenses.

Yet many immigrants, and even citizens who have family members living in the U.S. illegally, don’t apply for licenses, or seek other basic state services, out of concern that their information would make it back to ICE — which has happened. 

A Colorado Open Records Act request submitted by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition recovered more than 200 emails sent between Department of Motor Vehicles employees and ICE agents from January 2018 to May 2020. DMV staff shared personal identifying information with ICE officials despite a lack of subpoena, warrant or other judge-certified order.

Potentially hundreds of immigrant families have been affected by this data sharing, according to Arash Jahanian, director of police and civil rights litigation at the immigration-focused Meyer Law Office. 

“Those practices need to stop, and especially now, where there is so much need and so much fear in the community,” Gonzales said Thursday night.

As coronavirus vaccines become more available, Gonzales said it’s even more important to make sure immigrant communities feel they can trust state officials so that they are comfortable getting vaccinated against the virus. No proof of address or identifying documents are required to get the vaccine. 

The bill does not yet have bipartisan support, and it won’t need it to pass as the Democrats control both the legislature and the governor’s office, though Gonzales said Thursday that she’s hopeful her Republican colleagues will support the effort.

“At the end of the day, this is about the state’s obligation to maintain private information private,” Gonzales said, “And I think that’s an idea we can all get behind.”