On September 20, 2022, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for failure to lawfully respond to more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The records sought by the UWCHR include data and documents regarding local and national immigration enforcement, deportation flight contracts and incident reports, and other topics. See the full filing here.
The UWCHR’s new lawsuit notes a trend of “summary closures” of FOIA requests submitted during 2019-2022, whereby ICE has closed requests without ever providing a description of the search conducted for responsive records or a reason for the closure. In addition, in 2021 UWCHR was informed by ICE’s Community Relations Officer based in Seattle that she would no longer respond to inquiries from the Center, directing the Center to ICE’s website and FOIA as the only remaining avenues to obtain information. Since this time, however, UWCHR has noted a pattern of FOIA requests being closed or disappearing without explanation.
“These summary closures violate FOIA on its face and appear to be a new way in which ICE avoids compliance with its obligations under FOIA,” said UWCHR Director Prof. Angelina Godoy. “Whether this behavior results from bureaucratic ineptitude or deliberate obfuscation, it does not comply with the requirements of federal law.”
Since 2017, the UWCHR has conducted multiple research projects in partnership with local migrant rights organizations about the human rights impacts of federal immigration enforcement in Washington state and nationally, including a series of reports on conditions at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, and abuses on ICE Air deportation flights operated by private charters under contract with DHS.
“Our research has revealed patterns of human rights abuses in ICE operations at multiple levels, from apprehensions affecting Washington residents and their families, to inhumane conditions in detention and on deportation flights. We have filed multiple requests for information to help us understand agency operations that result in these problems, but ICE’s unwillingness to respond to our FOIA requests leaves us with no other option but to bring suit against the agency,” said Prof. Godoy.
In past years, the UWCHR has been successful in bringing FOIA litigation against various branches of the U.S. federal government including the Central Intelligence Agency (twice), the Department of Defense and Defense Intelligence Agency, and DHS/ICE and CBP (also twice). In all five of these cases, the Center has been represented pro bono by attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine, who were appointed Special Assistant Attorneys General to the University of Washington for this exclusive purpose. In all five suits, UWCHR successfully reached settlements with the defendant agencies.
Daniel Fiedler, associate at Davis Wright Tremaine, shared, “We rely on the UW Center for Human Rights to keep us informed about some of the most important human rights issues around the world, but also in our own backyard. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot continue to ignore its duties under the Freedom of Information Act, and through this suit we expect to win the simple relief to which UWCHR is entitled: access to government records it has been requesting for years.”
UWCHR has received thousands of pages of previously-undisclosed documents relevant to the study and practice of human rights, and used these documents in fulfillment of the mission given the Center by the Washington State Legislature in 2009.