Blog Archive

Friday, November 19, 2010

As Judges Reject Thousands of Deportation Cases, ICE Refuses to Share Enforcement Data

By Tara Tidwell Cullen
November 16, 2010

With growing evidence that the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is sweeping up thousands of people who should not be deported, it is not surprising that the agency is reluctant to reveal details of its overzealous enforcement of federal immigration laws. But under U.S. open records law, it shouldn’t have a choice in the matter.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) released data this week showing that during the last three months of fiscal year 2010, immigration judges found that nearly one-third of the people ICE brought before the courts for deportation proceedings should not be removed — a notable increase over recent years. The data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Justice, also shows that over the course of the full year, judges in New York City, Oregon, Los Angeles, Miami, and Philadelphia refused to order people deported in more than half the cases brought by ICE. TRAC credits that increase to a rise in the number of cases “terminated” by judges because the government could not prove that people actually were deportable under U.S. immigration law.

ICE celebrated a record-breaking 392,000 deportations in fiscal year 2010. The agency credits programs like Secure Communities for removing dangerous criminals from our streets. But TRAC’s findings are the most recent evidence that the agency is arresting thousands of people who should not be in federal custody at all. (ICE’s own data shows that only half of the people it arrested in 2010 had any criminal history.)

So how has the Obama administration’s pledge to rid our streets of dangerous criminal immigrants resulted in the arrest of so many people who immigration judges believe should not be deported?

TRAC and a coalition of families of detained immigrants have each asked the immigration agency for data that could help answer that question. But despite U.S. laws requiring that the government make this kind of information available, ICE has effectively refused to release it by demanding exorbitant processing fees. ICE imposed a $450,000 processing fee to fill TRAC’s FOIA request, ignoring TRAC’s status as an educational institution that should be exempt from any fees. When Families for Freedom requested statistics about nationwide increases in detention, deportation, and transfer of immigrants away from legal counsel, ICE demanded a $1.3 million processing fee.

ICE has been evading questions about its enforcement practices for months. The New York Times reported this week about confusion over whether or not communities can opt out of the Secure Communities program. That confusion has largely been the product of ICE’s refusal to provide clear answers regarding how the system will be — or already has been — implemented.

When President Obama entered office in 2009, he announced a new era of openness in which federal offices were encouraged to comply with FOIA requests. More recently, ICE has promised improved transparency of its own operations and even set up a “FOIA Reading Room” to post frequently requested documents. And in September 2010, ICE boasted that it had resolved all of its outstanding FOIA appeals. But the FOIA law is not meant to be applied selectively. ICE’s enforcement practices are unfairly criminalizing immigrants and tearing apart families—at a cost to taxpayers of $5.7 billion. Americans have a right to know what is really happening at ICE.