Watchdogs hit a wall in accessing once-available immigration data

A Q&A on how the Justice Department is limiting access to crucial information on migrants.

 

A group of Brazilian migrants await orders from U.S. Border Patrol agents. Data on asylum-seekers, which used to be public record, is now being withheld by the Department of Justice.
Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Since its creation in 1989, journalists, members of Congress, government agencies and researchers have seen Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) as a vital tool for watchdogging the federal government. 

The website compiles government data, received through systematic Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and provides it free to the public and the press.

But in early April, the organization hit a wall: Its requests for information about asylum and immigration cases weren’t getting through. High Country News spoke to TRAC’s co-founder, Susan Long. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

High Country News: How did you get involved in FOIA requests? 

Susan Long: I got involved in FOIAs as a graduate student at the University of Washington, getting records from the Internal Revenue Service. They were very resistant; in fact, my husband and I won the first series of successful lawsuits against the agency. That led to David Burnham finding us; he’s an investigative writer and former New York Times reporter, who is the other co-founder and co-director of TRAC. He was writing a book about the IRS, so it was natural for him to approach us. Out of that came the idea of more broadly trying to establish an organization that would make information accessible to the public as to what the federal government did day-to-day.  

As a result of our FOIA and litigation and court orders, we receive over 250 million records every month from various agencies and process them and add them to our data archives and tools. I’m on the faculty and teach managerial statistics here, so I'm into data. I was into big data before it had a name. 

HCN: One of your recent TRAC updates states that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has started an additional review process for information released under the Freedom of Information Act, specifically as it relates to asylum and immigrant cases. Could you explain what has changed?  

SL: Normally, it is pretty straightforward. But for the March records, the DOJ decided to initiate a new review, and they withheld several fields that are just absolutely central to what we were doing.

One of those fields relates to a very critical issue right now and that is asylum seekers. They withheld the field that indicates whether or not the individual has filed for and asked for asylum in immigration court, or for any other forms of relief from removal. That covers all cases, including historical ones that were closed before and newly filed ones. They just removed the field — period! 

They also withheld information about where people going through immigration court are located throughout the country, and obviously there is a great deal of interest in that. For example, there are lots of efforts currently to provide representation to these people, because when you appear in immigration court, you don’t have a right to have an attorney represent you — even though you are up against a taxpayer-paid government attorney seeking to deport you.

There has been a big increase in efforts to get voluntary attorneys pro bono and for cities and states to provide funding to hire people to represent asylum seekers. And so it is very helpful for them to see where the need is.

HCN: Did they give a reason for why they are doing this new review?

SL: They said they are concerned about protecting individuals’ privacy within the data. And during the review, these concerns had come up. But this is anonymous data; there is no way to identify anyone. This is just statistical-type data, so you can’t identify an individual through the records.

HCN: Had that information been denied in the past?  

SL: No, we had been getting it routinely up through February. We have been attempting to work with the agency to resolve it and have our fingers crossed that they will resume access and that it won't be necessary to challenge them in court. We'll see. 

HCN: Have you ever run into these issues before?

SL: Oh, yes! Some agencies are quite cooperative, and in general, the immigration court system has got a better record on that. So that was kind of a surprise. But many law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security can be very unhelpful. We currently have five ongoing FOIA lawsuits seeking court orders.

HCN: How does the current administration compare to previous administrations in terms of giving access to public records?

SL: Before they assume office, all administrations claim they are all for transparency. When they assume office, their records are less than wonderful. Just think about it: Information is power, isn’t it? It is human nature to want to control the story by restricting information. Nobody likes having someone look over their shoulder as to what they are doing. But in a democracy it is absolutely essential —the public needs to know what is going on in order to evaluate and render what it is that they want. Government needs to be held accountable.

HCN: What are the short-term and long-term repercussions of having this information withheld? 

SL: In terms of this new withholding of data, we hope it will be resolved. I mean, here we have this big current debate about (who should be given) asylum, and they suddenly withhold all the information about asylum? Just think about that. It just makes no sense.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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