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ICE tool probes North Carolina universities and clinics

ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Ser Amantio di Nicolao
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C.

An obscure legal tool used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to demand data from a wide range of entities was the subject of a WIRED.com investigation this month.

While the tool, known as a 1509 summons, is intended for customs enforcement, like verifying the payment of import duties, "WIRED" found that ICE had also probed elementary schools, news organizations and abortion clinics about matters seemingly unrelated to customs issues.

In North Carolina, ICE issued subpoenas to universities, medical clinics and local government agencies.

Dhruv Mehrotra is a staff journalist and investigative data reporter at WIRED.com. He recently received a database of these ICE summonses through a Freedom of Information request. It disclosed more than 170,000 listings, dated from 2016 to 2022.

“The 1509 summons is basically an administrative subpoena that ICE can issue specifically and explicitly for customs investigations. These are investigations related to the import of merchandise, as well as whether a company has paid the correct import taxes,” Mehrotra said.

Mehrotra had heard stories about the misuse of these subpoenas. It’s an issue that’s been flagged before and resulted in lawsuits.

“They've been caught using these things illegally,” Mehrotra said. “Most recently in 2022, Sen. Ron Wyden's office found that ICE had been issuing 1509 customs summonses to money transfer services to collect bulk financial transactions. And that's illegal.”

Most 1509 summonses are issued to major telecommunications and tech companies. Mehrotra found that Google, Meta and Microsoft received about 15,000 summonses combined.

Telecoms and tech companies also stood out on the state level.

WFAE analysis of Mehrotra’s data found that 1509 summonses had been issued about 3,300 times in North Carolina since 2016. Two-thirds of North Carolina’s summonses were made to Bandwidth.com, a communications platform used by Google, Zoom, Uber, Microsoft and other tech companies.

Mehrotra says it’s the outlier scenarios that caught his attention as a journalist.

“It's these edge cases that really concerned me and sparked my interest,” Mehrotra said. “I saw hundreds of elementary schools, abortion clinics and news organizations.”

In North Carolina, 1509 subpoenas have been issued to health clinics, social services departments, local law enforcement and a small tech company that managed school lunch programs.

There were also summonses sent to universities across the state. All of the organizations declined to comment.

A Western Carolina University representative said ICE requested they not disclose the existence of the summons for an indefinite period of time.

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that a 2021 subpoena addressed to its “Resident Commissary/Finance/Property Division” relates to an “active criminal investigation” and declined to comment further.

ICE told Mehrotra that they are tasked with enforcing hundreds of statutes, and investigations could relate to any number of issues. What Mehrotra does know is that usage of the 1509 summons has grown.

“They have definitely increased since 2016 steadily every year to the point where I think from 2016 to 2021, the last year we have complete data for, they basically doubled the number of subpoenas they sent. We're looking at tens of thousands a year,” he said.

Mehrotra’s full story can be found at WIRED.com.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.