Civil liberties groups ask Congress to refuse border tech funding in any shutdown deal

Civil liberties groups ask Congress to refuse border tech funding in any shutdown deal
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A coalition of civil liberties and immigration groups are calling on Congress to refuse funding for "invasive" border technology in any deal negotiated to avoid a second government shutdown. 

The coalition of 25 groups, including human rights and libertarian organizations, sent a letter addressed to congressional leadership raising concerns about each of the technologies proposed by House Democrats tasked with coming to a border deal.  

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"The [proposal from House Democrats on the panel] calls for funding various invasive surveillance technologies that would intrude on the liberties of travelers, immigrants, and people who live near the border," the groups wrote in the open letter, released Tuesday.

"Given that funding of border enforcement is already at a historic high, we do not believe that additional funding is needed to further fund border technology," the groups added.

A bipartisan, bicameral panel of 17 lawmakers is seeking to reach a border deal by Feb. 15, when the continuing resolution signed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE to end the previous government shutdown will lapse.

Democrats and Republicans in the group have made clear that they are willing to dedicate funding to a "smart wall," which would incorporate new technologies to beef up security on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Democrats' first proposal, put forward last week, called for "risk-based targeting of passengers and cargos" entering the U.S., "imaging technology" at the ports of entry to scan incoming vehicles, an "expansion" of Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) "air and marine" efforts along the border, and "new cutting edge technology" to improve awareness of the people and objects moving in the area around the border. 

The letter released Tuesday raises concerns about several of the technologies this could entail: drones, facial recognition technology, DNA collection, license plate readers and more. 

Civil liberties groups have been raising concerns about CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) using technology to surveil those crossing the border and those who may be undocumented in the U.S. Fight for the Future, alongside other human rights and immigration groups, turned up the heat on Salesforce over its contract with CBP last September.

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Microsoft and Amazon have also come under fire by activists over their history of selling facial recognition technology to the government and ICE in particular.

The letter notes that the Congressional Black Caucus previously expressed "serious concern" about facial recognition technology, saying it could impose "disproportionate burdens on communities of color and could stifle Americans’ willingness to exercise their first amendment rights in public.” 

"There are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that have expressed concerns about how invasive these programs already are," Evan Greer, a lead organizer with Fight for the Future's campaign, told The Hill. "My hope is that this wouldn’t just play out as a partisan debate, that [lawmakers] recognize the need to act with caution and not expand surveillance programs that undermine peoples’ civil liberties and constitutional rights." 

The groups are sounding alarms over the ways "risk-based targeting" and biometrics could result in racial profiling and harm vulnerable communities, while surveillance drones, license plate readers and DNA testing could raise serious privacy concerns for those crossing the border and living in border cities.

"The government separated thousands of children for purely political reasons," Erika Andiola, advocacy chief for immigration rights group RAICES, said in a statement, referring to the "zero-tolerance" policy that resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents at the border last year. 

“We cannot trust them to deploy ubiquitous surveillance technology that pose a serious threat to immigrant and civil rights," Andiola said. "We’re calling on party leadership not to give one dollar to the manufactured crisis at the border because we’ve seen time and time again how technology has been used by state agencies to implement racist policies.” 

The panel of Republican and Democratic negotiators are set to meet for a closed-door briefing on Wednesday. 

Evan Hollander, a House Appropriations Committee spokesman, said in a statement to The Hill that Democrats' proposal is preferable "compared to the President's proposed border wall."

"As part of comprehensive funding legislation that will strengthen border security and address the humanitarian crisis, House Democrats support investing in technology and personnel," Hollander said in the statement. "Compared to the President’s proposed border wall, this is the smartest, most effective way to secure the border."

Greer told The Hill she is concerned about "handing a blank check to the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] to spend on technologies that pose a serious threat to peoples’ basic rights." 

DHS did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment.

Fight for the Future and other civil liberties groups will likely next focus their attention on putting pressure on tech companies making border technologies, Greer told The Hill. 

"Given that many tech leaders have spoken out against the idea of a wall and against these types of immigration enforcement measures, it would be only consistent for them to refuse to participate in building expanded surveillance programs at the US border," she said.

— Updated 3:10 p.m.