Senator Ron Wyden is calling for an investigation after finding that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has secretly monitored and collected records on 200 million American money transfers without obtaining a warrant for at least the past 12 years.
After reviewing a letter Wyden wrote to the DHS inspector general, the Wall Street Journal reported that it was the first time Congress learned about the program, the Oregon Democratic senator’s office first learned of it last month.
The Division of Homeland Security was collecting data on domestic and international money transfers of that amount going to or from Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas – as well as money transfers over that amount going to or from Mexico from anywhere in the U.S.
‘Given the many serious issues raised by this troubling program, I request that you investigate the program’s origins, how the program operated, and whether the program was consistent with agency policy, statutory law, and the Constitution,’ wrote Wyden in a letter to DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari.
Hundreds of money transfer companies provided ICE with transaction data voluntarily until at least 2019.
Wyden asked Cuffari to determine if Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) implemented similar programs. In addition, he demanded that DHS ensure that activities like these are under congressional scrutiny.
Wyden’s letter says the previously undisclosed surveillance program dates back at least to 2010 when Arizona’s attorney general began collecting information from Western Union after the financial services company settled a money-laundering lawsuit.
Western Union and the state of Arizona settled a money-laundering dispute in 2014 and created the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), which holds the data on the money transfers detailed in Wyden’s letter.
‘Our office uses TRAC, a federally-funded program to legally monitor international wire cash transfers from border states to Mexico,’ Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s spokeswoman Katie Conner said.
‘This is done to combat human and drug trafficking. It is ironic that during a historic border crisis, this would be the focus of any U.S. senator,’ she continued.
Even though Wyden staff briefed privacy advocates on the program, privacy advocates complained it is unusual to use nongovernmental organizations to gather and store data law enforcement can access.
‘I cannot think of another arrangement like this that combines an illegal use of subpoenas with an inscrutable, private nonprofit just for the purposes of housing this information,’ said Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
In his opinion, the fact that these entities are not subject to public records laws ‘has the effect of shielding this tremendously concerning program from public scrutiny.’
According to Wyden, dozens of other money transfer companies were cooperating with TRAC until 2019, the end of the agreement with the Arizona attorney general’s office.
As soon as the agreements lapsed, the Arizona AG urged ICE to force companies to share money transfer data by using the law to investigate people and goods moving in and out of the country.
ICE has summoned Western Union six times between July 2019 and January 2022, and Maxitransfers twice between 2021 and 2022, each requesting relevant data for six months at a time, according to the Journal.
A Wyden aide said ICE investigators collected approximately 6 million records on international money transfers under TRAC since 2019, which is just 3 percent of the data held by the host program. This means TRAC has collected information on approximately 200 million transfers.
The data allegedly includes the names, addresses, and identification numbers of the money transfer senders as well as the names and addresses of the recipients.
Approximately 50,000 summonses have been submitted so far this year, according to Wyden aides and a separate government official. Western Union and Maxitransfer were contacted by Wyden’s office about the program in January.
Although ICE has agreed to stop using its summons authority for the Program, CBP and ICE still use data to support their investigations. TRAC, for example, was used by ICE to seize 150,000 counterfeit pills in Oregon, Wyden’s state. They were brought there by a Mexican drug smuggler whose transactions were tracked by ICE.
As of yet, DHS does not have a director for its law enforcement arm.
Despite Tae Johnson holding the position in an acting capacity since January 13, 2021, it has been officially available since former President Barack Obama left office five years ago.
ICE has struggled to find a director, especially in light of Republican calls for more severe immigration enforcement, and progressive calls for the agency to be abolished.