FOI Daily Dose: FOIA affects immigration debate

Immigration isn’t just a talking point for President Obama, who praised the Senate’s progress on the comprehensive reform legislation at a June 12 Democratic National Committee fundraiser. It’s a hot topic for Freedom of Information Act  junkies this week, too.

The Judicial Watch, a public-interest watchdog group, reported June 12 that it recently acquired documents through a FOIA request that revealed the federal government isn’t complying with current immigration enforcement laws and regulations.

An anonymous whistle-blower within a federal law enforcement agency alerted Judicial Watch that the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services has been undermining America’s national security by replacing required background checks on undocumented immigrants with costly “lean and lite” procedures since late 2012. The USCIS allegedly adopted these “haphazard” procedures to keep up with the influx of amnesty applications under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that gives undocumented immigrants a two-year deferment from deportation. The Watch said their FOIA documents prove that background checks on immigrants seeking “deferred status” do not measure up to Immigration and National Security Act (INA) standards.

The Watch filed a FOIA request with the Homeland Security Department on Oct. 26, asking for “all communications, memoranda, emails, policy guidance, directives, initiatives and other correspondence respecting the scope and extent of background checks to be performed (or not) on aliens applying to the Obama administration’s DACA program.”

And the Watch isn’t the only group seeking more information related to  immigration. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a team of San Diego news organizations asked a federal judge on June 12 to break the seal on information about an undocumented immigrant who died after he was beaten and Tasered by Border Patrol agents, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In May, the agent’s attorneys asked the judge to seal the filings, and the government supported the request to prevent exposing the policies and procedures of Customs and Border Protection. But the ACLU said the cost of civil liberties in this case is too high, so they’re protesting the seal to “protect the public’s interest in open and transparent proceedings in cases involving serious questions of official misconduct,” the Union-Tribune said.

“The defendants’ extraordinary request to allow this case to proceed under full seal due to unspecified and unproven ‘security concerns’ violates both the First Amendment and the common law right of access to judicial records,” David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, told the Union-Tribune. “Openness in judicial proceedings is essential to creating public trust in the legitimacy of the proceedings. In this case, defendants have not met the strict standard for cutting public access to the court record.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett. – See more at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi

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