An ICE officer conducting a search.
Photo: John Moore (Getty)

Berkeley, California became the nation’s first sanctuary city in 1971, and tomorrow its city council will prepare to refine what that means in 2019 with an ordinance designed to pressure private companies who collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Following a similar policy passed last year in Richmond, CA, the Sanctuary Contracting Ordinance (SCO) would prohibit “the award of city contracts to vendors acting as ICE data brokers, or those providing extreme vetting services,” extending the idea of sanctuary into data privacy. “This isn’t a new concept for Berkeley, it’s just a new target,” the ordinance’s author, Brian Hofer, told Gizmodo, “the data is where the risk is.”

Advertisement

One of the vendors likely to be affected is Westlaw, a legal research tool which “accumulates data on 90 million arrest records and 22,000 pieces of booking data a year,” as well as information on the probability of that person’s legal status, according to Councilperson Kate Harrison. “That is information ICE uses people directly to deport people from jail.” Initial analysis by the City Manager suggests LexisNexis might provide a suitable alternative for Berkeley’s needs. “Westlaw has an opportunity to consider,” Harrison said, “would they like to contract with local governments or would they like to contract with ICE?”

The SCO doesn’t sever existing contracts, it only bars those companies from renewing or securing contracts in the future. In the case of Westlaw, it would have around three years to consider Harrison’s ultimatum.

Advertisement

The scope of the ordinance is perhaps more narrow than might be expected though, and beyond Westlaw there seems to be confusion as to which vendors would even be impacted. A memo written by City Manager Dee Williams-Riley, obtained by the New York Times and Gizmodo, shows the considerable impact migrating away from Amazon Web Services might have on Berkeley. Councilperson Harrison also cited Microsoft as a possible target, but was unclear on the specific details that would put it in the SCO’s crosshairs.

Workers within Microsoft and Amazon have been critical of their company’s willingness to assist ICE’s mission. However, neither firm’s work has, to public knowledge, bridged into extreme vetting or direct data brokerage. “[Web] storage in and of itself is not harming people,” Hofer said, stating that he considered his earlier hardline approach against ICE “completely impractical.”

Advertisement

If passed, the SCO might not be the blow to big tech it was floated as, but it’s a step in the coalition-building process that could propel or sink nearly identical state-wide legislation introduced to the California legislature last week. Put another way by Hofer, “This is one of the only tools at the local level where we can have an impact on federal immigration policy.”