ICE Sued For Withholding Previously Public Information

Categories Immigration, Politics

By Josh Brokaw

Syracuse University researchers are suing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE] in federal court for what they say is an “abrupt change in disclosure practices.”

Professors Susan Long and David Burnham, of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse [TRAC], filed suit against ICE in United States district court for the Northern District of New York on Wednesday, May 9.

The complaint, which you can download here, says that “(s)tarting abruptly in January 2017, ICE began refusing to disclose much of the information produced in its previous responses to FOIA requests.”

According to Long, a professor in the Whitman School of Management, TRAC submits Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests monthly to ICE asking for information on I-247 forms. The I-247 forms, commonly known as “detainers” or “notices,” ask law enforcement to either detain an immigrant up to 48 hours more than they otherwise would have been held so ICE agents can pick them up, or request that a jail or prison give “voluntary notification of release of suspected priority alien.” These detainers are issued, according to the lawsuit, when “ICE considers an immigrant who has been arrested by federal, state, or local law enforcement a potential priority for removal proceedings.”

Anonymized data from the detainers and notices are entered into a TRAC database that has been built from data starting in 2003. There, the public can find out how many detainer requests ICE has sent to individual jails and prisons, how often ICE actually picks up the detainees, how many have been deported, what their criminal charges were, how often a facility has refused to comply with ICE, and other information.

“It’s not fun to sue the government,” Long said, “but it’s better to get the information. ICE is not a great fan of the Freedom of Information Act, we should say, but there was this sudden reversal. Suddenly information we had been getting we didn’t get. We know there’s been a great deal of discussion of late about the Trump administration’s emphasis on detainers. If local police and sheriff don’t follow them they have been threatening to withhold federal funding – it’s a big issue.”

The particular request in question was submitted by Long and Burnham in November 2016, asking for data from fiscal year 2015 through the end of that month. The ICE response, dated Jan. 10, 2017, withheld data in 44 fields that has been previously disclosed, and an appeal was denied by ICE in April. A similar request for data on notice requests had 61 fields of data withheld that TRAC had previously obtained.

“This is anonymous data. We’re getting it case by case, but not names or anything that would identify an individual,” Long said. “Under FOIA that’s a public record. [ICE] doesn’t dispute that – they’re not claiming the information is exempt. They’re just claiming ‘We don’t have to.’”

An ICE spokesperson responded to a TruthSayers request for information on agency FOIA policies with the comment that “this issue is currently part of pending litigation, and we’re going to refrain from comment at this point.”


 

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Long said that her group has criticized ICE’s recording of detainer refusals. TRAC researchers have found in the past that ICE “information on refusals is highly unreliable,” Long said. “We found that by comparing whether [ICE] took the individual into custody.”

ICE started issuing a weekly “detainer refused” report to highlight sanctuary municipalities that were refusing its requests, but suspended the program after two weeks because of reporting errors.

Detainers have also historically been a “very minor” source of deportations, Long said, “surprisingly, because there’s so much talk about them you would think they were central.”

TRAC is also having problems getting data from ICE on the issue of raids, Long said, but it is receiving data from other federal agencies that it tracks, like the U.S. Immigration Court, which has already returned a request for data through the end of April.

“President Trump announced greater transparency on immigration systems and processes,” Long said “This seems to be exactly the opposite. The whole issue of targeting [this data] is to say, is this effective? There’s this old fashioned idea in this country that it’s a democracy. The public needs to know what the government is doing so they can judge whether they feel these policies are good, are effective, whether the government is achieving its goals.”

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

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Twitter: @jdbrokaw