In recent days many have focused a great deal of attention to the conditions under which migrants—including many children—are being held along the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet far fewer people are aware of the extent to which interrelated rights concerns crop up right here in Washington state. Student researchers at the UWCHR have set out to change that, through our Human Rights at Home project.
Some of this involves the careful analysis of government data about immigration enforcement, much of it secured through Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Homeland Security’s sub-agencies Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This past year, for example, graduating senior Cristina Gamundi pored through accounts of arrests and prosecutions, and Francisca Gómez, a PhD student in Sociology, helped create maps showing how enforcement varies by county in our state.
Other times, this work involves quantitative analysis of data sets, such as the thousands of jail files obtained and analyzed in our quantitative study of the impact of detainers—requests by ICE to local jails—on the length of incarceration in Pierce County. That study found evidence that those wanted by ICE or CBP spent more than three times longer behind bars than others, even when researchers controlled for the severity of the offense committed.
Some of this work has helped drive historic change. This past April, we published twin reports on the human rights implications of ICE Air, based on our analysis of a never-before-released database of deportation flights with 1.7 million records. Among other things, these records showed that the government is deporting thousands who still have pending cases before the U.S. courts. In response, King County Executive Dow Constantine issued an Executive Order ceasing the use of Boeing Field for ICE flights. This made ours the first county in the nation to take such a step, though others are now considering following suit.
We’ve shared our research at the international level, too. Last December, PhD student Emily Willard presented one of our research reports to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in Washington DC, as part of a hearing dedicated to the plight of immigrant rights defenders in the contemporary U.S. Titled “Secret Police,” the report highlighted the way immigration authorities are using selective enforcement to retaliate against their critics.
ICE v. University of Washington
Sometimes, however, the fight comes to us. This year, we had the dubious honor of ourselves being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in response to a public records request we filed in rural Cowlitz County, Washington. In 2018 we learned that their youth jail is one of only three facilities nationwide authorized to hold unaccompanied immigrant minors for ICE for a period longer than 72 hours. ICE’s contract with the county specifies that the kids detained there include those whom ICE considers disruptive, or deems to be “chargeable as criminal”—but that’s an entirely different standard, of course, than having been convicted of a crime in a court of law.
Seeking to understand the situation further, we requested information under Washington’s public records law, which includes a provision granting Washington institutions of higher learning conducting research in the public benefit access to otherwise-confidential portions of inmates’ jail files. As Cowlitz County was preparing to release this information to us, ICE intervened, insisting that federal law prohibits the release of any information about any person held for ICE. This led Cowlitz to file a motion for declaratory judgment in state court earlier this year, naming UWCHR director Angelina Godoy and the University of Washington as defendants. More recently, ICE became a party to the case and is seeking its removal to federal court.
ICE is not alleging we have engaged in wrongdoing. But by seeking to fight us in federal court, they are compelling us to either withdraw the records request or engage in a battle to defend our right to the information about these unaccompanied children. In effect, they’re trying to treat a county jail in Washington state as a black site for jailing kids.
Our Center was founded ten years ago to advance the study and practice of human rights in our state; immigrant rights was one of the topic areas specifically named in our founding legislation. We’d prefer to be focused on research and teaching than on defending ourselves in court, but we’ll fight if we need to. We hope to have positive news to share with you on this front in our next Annual Report.
For updates visit the Human Rights at Home project page.