Law schools pressured to cut ties with research firms over ICE, CBP

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Law students across the country are calling on their schools to sever ties with two major research firms over their work with immigration enforcement agencies. 

A set of protests demanding the termination of contracts with LexisNexis and Westlaw scheduled throughout the week marks a high-water mark in the growing movement to hold data brokers accountable for their role in assisting deportations.

The coalition of students is also pushing for the databases’ parent companies, RELX and Thomson Reuters, respectively, to stop providing tools to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

“We know that law schools are relying on these tools, but it doesn’t absolve the culpability and the role that they play in funding and fueling these violent deportations and detentions,” said Peyton Jacobsen, a Seattle University Law School student involved in organizing the week of action.

The group, dubbed the End the Contract Coalition, is sending open letters to the deans of the more than 20 law schools with students in the coalition and staging protests at five schools. The students leading the effort have relied on chapters of existing student groups, like the National Lawyers Guild and the International Refugee Assistance Project, to build their organization. The immigrant advocacy group Mijente is also helping organize the week of action.

“We wanted to tap into that national network,” Sam Sueoka, a third-year law student at Seattle University, said. “We need a large coalition of people to participate.”

Lexis and Westlaw are both deeply ingrained in law school education and the legal field more broadly.

The two databases have unparalleled collections of case law and secondary material like law review articles and statutes.

Students are taught how to use the research programs in classes and trainings and know they will have to master them to be able to succeed in the field.

“Pretty much every organization that you would work for after graduating and during your internships utilizes one of these two services,” said Marisa O’Toole, a New York University law school student involved in the coalition.

The research programs are embedded into law schools, with many universities having representatives for the company on-site to assist students with any questions.

The contracts between schools and the companies are fairly straightforward. Universities essentially pay a subscription fee yearly so that students can freely access the database. Seattle University, for example, pays Lexis roughly $50,000 per year, according to a contract running through August 2022 shared with The Hill.

The close ties between the companies and law schools are now being called into question in the light of reporting on how immigration agencies have used the services, especially during the Trump administration.

LexisNexis signed a $16.8 million contract with ICE earlier this year, while Westlaw’s parent company Thomson Reuters has held active contracts with the agency since 2015. Thomson Reuters has several other active contracts with the Department of Homeland Security as well.

Thomson Reuters spokesperson Dave Moran said in a statement to The Hill that the company’s products “are not designed to be used for mass illegal immigration inquiries,” noting that they do not contain data on immigration or citizenship status.

The Hill has also reached out to LexisNexis for comment on this week’s protests.

Both companies provide ICE vast troves of records that are cobbled together to build dossiers on individuals.

Data is pulled from public and private sources including car registrations, credit headers, utility bills, marriage licenses and jail records. Taken together, the information can tell a staggering amount about an individual’s life.

Agents in the field use the databases, along with government maintained ones, to identify and research particular targets for questioning and deportation.

Under former President Trump’s 2017 executive order on interior safety, which massively expanded who was considered a priority for deportation, the databases were used to apprehend many immigrants who had been in the country for decades. 

“If you think about it, the people who have the most ‘American lives’ are the ones who are going to be putting up the most exhaust, in terms of data,” McKenzie Funk, an independent journalist who has written extensively about data brokers, told The Hill. 

That use brought new scrutiny to how databases could be weaponized, although according to Funk it remains an open question whether their use will be as controversial with the new administration’s priorities.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said the focus of deportations will once again be individuals with criminal records, but the tools are still likely to play an important role in operations.

The firms have distinct “longitudinal” advantages over potential competitors in the government data brokering space, according to Funk.

Both RELX and Thomson Reuters own parts of what was once Choicepoint, which provided data services to the Immigration and Naturalization Service as far back as the 1990s.

The breadth of data available over that time period, much of which is no longer easily accessible to the public, makes the databases invaluable. For example, agents can identify that an individual did not have records before five years prior and quickly determine that they are an illegal immigrant.

Both companies have similar advantages in the legal space.

Alternatives to Westlaw and Lexis do exist, but are comparatively limited in the scope of information available on them. Both companies have a massive head start collecting and digitizing harder to find court opinions.

The two have been able to establish what Sarah Lamdan, a City University of New York law professor, calls “information monopolies”.  

“They’re the gold standard to the extent that some judges won’t even accept lawyers’ work unless they cite Westlaw or Lexis,” she told The Hill.

The firms have been able to fend off competitors like Casetext and Bloomberg’s search engine relatively easily through a combination of lawsuits and better product offerings.

While the firms have a very strong grasp on the legal research space now, Lamdan said that students speaking up could eventually break the duopoly.

“We have to send out lawyers that are able to work in the system and if LexisNexis and Westlaw are the coin of the realm that’s what we’re going to teach them,” she explained. “It gives me hope to see, like, law students interested in the topic because law students are ultimately the end consumers: they’re the people who are going to be running the law firms, and they’re going to be the judges.”

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas CBP Donald Trump ICE Immigration LexisNexis Westlaw
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