California Weighs Shielding Personal Data From Federal Reach

Students at Orange County's Mexican Consulate study the California Driver Handbook.  (Marcus Teply/KQED)

At a small rally near the state Capitol recently, Juan Aguilar stood among a group of people waving large American and Mexican flags. They were taking part in the national A Day Without Immigrants demonstrations to protest against increased federal immigration enforcement.

Aguilar recently moved to Sacramento from Fresno, where he was born. He’s a U.S. citizen, but most of his family, including his dad, are undocumented.

“My father, he travels a lot -- San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento, L.A. -- all over," he says. "All he’s trying to do is have enough money to support all of us.”

Aguilar is worried his dad might somehow draw the attention of immigration officials. Anyone who interacts with state government -- getting a driver’s license, paying state taxes or registering to vote, for example -- turns over personal information to the state government. And many in the Latino community are getting nervous as the Trump administration begins cracking down on illegal immigration.

California Weighs Shielding Personal Data From Federal Reach

California Weighs Shielding Personal Data From Federal Reach

But California legislators are fighting back with several bills meant to protect personal data collected by the state. State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) says privacy is especially important for groups that might be targeted by the federal government, including immigrants or Muslims.

"We have to move quickly to protect the data that we have in terms of folks that have trusted in our state government to be able to offer critical services that are important to them," he says.

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Lara has introduced two bills aimed at better protecting the data gathered while applying for state services.

Senate Bill 244 would prohibit state agencies from using personal information for anything beyond what’s needed to process an application. Senate Bill 31 would block state and local governments from participating in any effort to establish a registry of Muslims or any other religion. Senate Bill 54 from Senate leader Kevin de León would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from using their resources for immigration enforcement purposes. Lara says California can't afford to wait.

“We have to be very vigilant and we have to be ahead of the game in terms of ensuring that our immigrant community's information is going to be kept here in California and it's not going to be shared with the federal government," Lara says.

But Republicans say Democrats are just sowing fear as part of an effort to undermine President Trump. Riverside County state Sen. Jeff Stone recently suggested as much while the Senate debated a resolution condemning increased federal immigration actions.

“This Senate resolution is just another piece of feel-good rant that scores political points with a few and panders to the increasing fear and anxiety of many," Stone says.

Civil liberties groups acknowledge many state systems already have confidentiality clauses in place. And California’s Constitution also contains a right to privacy.

Still, Jill Bronfman, with the Privacy and Technology Project at UC Hastings College of the Law, believes it may be time for the state to get creative in applying current laws if the federal government tries tapping into state databases. For instance, Bronfman says, California could expand protections for victims of domestic violence to include people targeted by the federal government.

"Can you be threatened or stalked by the federal government? Is deportation to a war zone or certain gender violence a sufficient threat to be protected by this program?" she asks.

Bronfman says California has always been at the forefront of privacy law. But she says things are happening quickly at the federal level and the state needs to be ready.