ICE refuses to confirm if new surveillance cameras will be installed in the Rio Grande Valley

Over the course of the last six months, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have made several purchase orders for surveillance equipment with a Houston-based company named Cowboy Streetlight Concealments LLC.

While the total number of cameras to be installed remains undisclosed, ICE officials have confirmed with media outlets that the surveillance equipment will be for use by the Houston and San Antonio Regional offices.

Because the Rio Grande Valley is among the jurisdictions under the San Antonio regional ICE office, local advocacy groups are concerned about the possibility that some of streetlight surveillance cameras might soon be installed in the area.

According to government records, the first purchase of video recording and reproducing equipment occurred on June 26. On July 31, a second order was made, followed by a third order on Sept. 12, and a final order one on Oct. 16. The descriptions on the records indicate only that ICE purchased surveillance cameras, including pole cameras. On the four orders, ICE spent $28,199.

The DEA, in turn, purchased $22,089 worth of what the records indicate is audio video equipment.

Christina Patiño Houle, the network weaver of the Equal Voice Network of the Rio Grande Valley, was appalled when she learned of the purchases.

“It is a really big concern for our community especially in an age where we are thinking a lot about privacy,” said Patiño Houle. “We’re thinking a lot about our right to live our daily lives without feeling as though we are constantly being surveilled and [to have] a good understanding of when we are being surveilled, who is doing the surveilling, and what are they using that [retrieved] information for.”

When asked to confirm whether or not the surveillance cameras would be installed in the RGV, Timothy Oberle, public affairs officer for ICE, failed to provide a direct answer.

Instead, he responded in a written statement that “the information requested is considered law-enforcement sensitive, and its release could jeopardize criminal investigations into dangerous and violent activities. For the protection of our law enforcement officers and agents and to preserve the integrity of future investigations, we cannot provide further information.”

Questions about when the streetlight surveillance cameras would be installed were also left unanswered.

In an effort to obtain further clarification, Neta reached out to Christie Crawford, owner of Cowboy Streetlight Concealment. Crawford, however, declined to comment on their business relations with ICE.

In an earlier interview with Quartz, however, Crawford shared that her company focuses on “streetlight concealments and camera enclosures,” or, in other words, hidden or covert cameras.

“I can tell you this-thing are always being watched. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving down the street or visiting a friend, if government or law enforcement has a reason to set up surveillance, there’s great technology out there to do it,” Crawford told Quartz.

Patiño Houle criticized the company for profiting off the surveillance of immigrant communities, including potentially those in the Rio Grande Valley.

“As our communities are being disproportionately targeted for surveillance, outside businesses are making a profit directly from this,” said Patiño Houle. “This entity is not in the Rio Grande Valley. The people who are benefiting from this are outside entities from a different geography, profiting from the terror and highest surveillance implementation of fear in our communities,” she added.

It’s not the first time that ICE makes technological purchases of concern to advocates. In January 2018, ICE contracted with Vigilant Solutions to track license plates across the US.

Through that contract, ICE gained access to a nationwide license plate recognition database, which according to a report by The Verge, grants the agency “access to billions of license plate records and new powers of real-time location tracking.” With this database, ICE agents can search the history of spotted license plates up to five years back to track the subject’s residence and identify a subject’s associates if a car is consistently spotted in a certain area. ICE can also receive alerts via email through a system called “hot list” with the help of police dashcams and stationary readers on bridges and toll booths. The hot list allows 2,500 license plates to be uploaded in a “single batch.”

In addition to the need for transparency from federal immigration enforcement agencies, Patiño Houle says it is important for local communities to obtain answers from their local elected officials about the role and collaboration of local law enforcement when it comes to possible surveillance operations.

“We, just as everyone else in the United States have the same concerns about our privacy and it is completely unfair to segment a particular part of the country that is majority Latinx and has some of the lowest income populations of the country,” said Patiño Houle. “We still are entitled to the basic rights of privacy that everyone else in the country expects and desires.”