by Bunthay Cheam
Seattle University Law School students are calling on their school to cut ties with data companies Thomson Reuters and RELX PLC, the parent companies of legal research tools Westlaw and LexisNexis, respectively, because of their relationship with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).
On Oct. 4, 2021, the law students who are part of the national group, End the Contract Coalition (ECC), took part in a week of action that included a virtual panel facilitated by Mijente, a Latinx and Chicanx political activism group, and on campus direct action. Students unfurled a massive sign to inform students and faculty of their campaign and laid out sleeping bags covered in foil blankets inside the Law School building to represent people in custody at immigration holding facilities.
In April, Seattle University Law School students Sam Sueoka and Peyton Jacobsen discovered the relationship between LexisNexis and ICE through an Intercept article.
According to the ECC website: “LexisNexis signed a $16.8 million contract with ICE, further consolidating the relationship between legal research companies and law enforcement agencies. The contract states that LexisNexis will provide Homeland Security investigators with access to billions of records containing personal data from an array of public and private sources, including credit history, bankruptcy records, license plate images, and cellular subscriber information. Both Thomson Reuters and RELX have a history of supplying ICE with person-specific data which allows the agency to conduct rapid searches for personal information.”
Thomson Reuters and RELX PLC hold massive swaths of data. During a webinar hosted by Mijente as part of the week of action, Sarah Lamdan, law professor at CUNY School of Law, illustrated just how much. “Two hundred eighty-three million records means that over two-thirds of everyone in the U.S. definitely has one of these dossiers [with LexisNexis],” she said.
LexisNexis creates unique identifiers or dossiers for individuals culled from thousands of pieces of data that is constantly updated.
According to ECC, Thomson Reuters and RELX PLC both have contracts to share data with ICE, information they use to locate and detain people across the United States. The group says that ICE can access driver’s license numbers, car registrations, criminal history, and utility bills: in other words, pieces of data that help them paint a more holistic picture of the everyday life of individual targets and make it easier for ICE agents to track, detain, and potentially remove them.
“If you’ve ever logged onto anything or been involved with a government entity at any point, any licenses, any criminal history, immigration history, you are in their system,” Lamdan said.
Seattle University as well as other law schools across the nation rely on Westlaw and LexisNexis as research tools. Law students are taught how to use these tools to find information that includes statutes, case reviews, and law review articles. In addition, Westlaw and LexisNexis are also heavily utilized across many law firms, representing how institutionalized these database tools are in the field of law.
Jacobsen, who is a member of the Seattle University Chapter of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said this issue doesn’t just affect immigrant communities. “If you do anything online, LexisNexis has your data too. The sharing with the federal government is just the tip of the iceberg. They have the ability to share all this information with local law enforcement; it’s really a surveillance issue that affects everyone,” she said.
Thomson Reuters and RELX PLC did not respond to the Emerald’s request for comment.
According to their website, ECC demands include asking law schools to: end their contracts with LexisNexis and WestLaw, publicly condemn the companies’ contracts with ICE, offer alternative research methods, and commit to informing students about the ICE contracts these companies are involved in during the 1L legal writing curriculum.
In April, Sueoka and Jacobsen reached out to Seattle University Law School Dean Annette Clark for a meeting to raise their concern. “We emphasized the importance of including education around ethical research practices into SU’s curriculum. We also asked the dean to issue a public statement denouncing the contracting practices and the dean flat out denied us,” Jacobsen said.
The Emerald reached out to Clark for comment and received the following response on behalf of Seattle University Law School. “The law school is sensitive to these concerns, which were brought to the attention of the administration last spring. In response, the following actions were implemented over the summer:
- First year students are no longer required to attend sessions with Westlaw and Lexis representatives, which are being held outside of class sessions.
- Legal Writing faculty will not require students to use any particular platform to conduct legal research.
- More emphasis will be placed on introducing students to alternative legal research platforms.
- All Legal Writing students will receive information about the issue with ICE during class time so they can make informed decisions.”
ECC members are represented at over 20 campuses across the country, including Stanford University School of Law and Harvard Law School. Across the country, coalition members at their respective schools participated in the week of action virtually and on campus. A protest was also organized in front of LexisNexis headquarters in New York which was led by NYU Law School students.
During the week of action, UC Davis students received a response from LexisNexis regarding their relationship with ICE. The statement read: “The [LexisNexis] tool promotes public safety and is not used to prevent legal immigration nor is it used to remove individuals from the United States unless they pose a serious threat to public safety including child trafficking, drug smuggling, and other serious criminal activity.”
Jacobsen takes issue with the LexisNexis statement. “What LexisNexis was trying to say is, ‘Our contracts are only used to provide data to find people who are involved with serious criminal activity.’ But the evidence … obtained through FOIA says that that’s not true at all,” she said.
ECC partners Mijente, Immigrant Defense Project, and Just Futures provided information they obtained through past Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to Jacobsen and Sueoka which they claim are contrary to LexisNexis claims on the email.
Taking the Campaign Off Campus
For Sueoka and Jacobsen, this is just the beginning of their organizing. They plan to deliver a petition directly to Clark calling on the school to meet their demands that include ending Seattle University’s relationship with companies like Thomson Reuters and RELX PLC. They also plan to take their campaign off campus to law firms who also rely heavily on Westlaw and LexisNexis.
“There is a general culture of complicity in the legal profession in technology and law in the immigration system,” Jacobsen said. “In the intersection of all of those topics, I think it’s oftentimes just much easier for law students and lawyers to say nothing and continue on whatever path that they’re on. Because of our privilege, I think it’s just extra, extra important that we speak out as loudly and as much as we possibly can and fight back against this culture [of] complicity, which is a signifier of white supremacy culture in the law,” said Jacobsen.
For Sueoka there is a personal element to his activism, too. “My family is Japanese American and some of my family members were thrown into Japanese internment camps,” he said. “If this type of technology was around back then, you can, without a doubt, know that they would have used it. Japanese Americans [were put] into detention camps and that’s what’s happening to Latinx people in our country today. It could be happening to a different group of people … in the future.”
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article used the incorrect pronouns “he/him” for Peyton Jacobsen and misspelled Sam Sueoka as “Sueoku.” This article was updated on 10/22/2021 with Jacobsen’s correct pronouns of “she/her” and the correct spelling of Sam Sueoka.
Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.
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