Last week, on September 20, 2022, we filed a lawsuit against DHS and ICE for failure to lawfully respond to FOIA requests. ICE’s stonewalling of our FOIA requests leaves us with no other option but to bring suit against the agency. We bring FOIA litigation because we know that access to information is a human right. What’s the information behind our record requests that we are fighting so hard to get? We are seeking data and documents regarding local and national immigration enforcement, deportation flight contracts and incident reports, and other topics – below are just a few examples.
1) Family separation in Washington state
On February 10, 2021, the UWCHR requested information about the number of unaccompanied children and family units held in ICE custody in Washington state, the location where they were held, and the book-in and book-out dates in each location from 2018-2021.
The ICE ERO document “Transportation Services for Unaccompanied Children Statement of Work,” states that this information is stored in the Enforcement Alien Booking Manual.
Using ICE’s own documents, UWCHR researchers have identified family units, including juveniles, who have been separated by federal immigration authorities in Washington state after crossing the border from Canada. For example, …
Excerpt from ICE document that UWCHR received through FOIA request, noting the separation and location of a family under ICE custody from India.
Records show that fathers are typically sent to the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, while mothers and children are taken to motels near SeaTac airport, as in this case of a family from India apprehended in Blaine, WA in April 2019 (shown in graphic above). The mother and children may then be expelled under Title 42 – returned to their country of origin without an opportunity to seek asylum – or flown to a family detention center across the country, but because these practices happen in secrecy, we do not know. These family separations can last years or even become permanent, as each parent is forced to fight their case separately, with or without legal representation.
Our government’s separation of migrant families is neither necessary nor acceptable, and ICE’s secrecy surrounding the practice seeks to conceal it from public view.
In response to UWCHR’s request for this information, ICE:
- On November 1, 2021, claimed to have delivered documents containing the information; no documents arrived.
- On April 11, 2022, claimed the case was closed.
- On June 15, 2022, sent a letter (backdated to October 2021) claiming that they had searched for the information but was unable to find it.
- Since then, has failed to acknowledge further communications from UWCHR.
Either ICE’s documents showing they are housing mothers and daughters in SeaTac motels are false, or ICE is keeping no records of these families it hides away in hotels. Which is it?
Relatedly, UWCHR researchers seek to investigate ICE’s relationship with the private company MVM, Inc., with which ICE has contracted to transport unaccompanied children and family units who have crossed the border from Canada into Washington state. Public sources have revealed that in 2019, MVM failed to provide adequate food, water, clean clothes, and hygienic conditions for these unaccompanied children and family units, and has kept unaccompanied children in these inadequate conditions for periods exceeding 24 hours. In response to the ensuing controversy, ICE indicated that it would review its relationship with MVM as a private contractor – only to then renew its contractual relationship with MVM for a period of five years.
In order to understand the extent to which ICE has held MVM accountable for any violations of its performance standards – such as those documented in other states – on September 16, 2021, UWCHR researchers requested access to documents that would indicate whether ICE has made any deductions for MVM’s violation of performance standards in Washington state. In response, ICE:
- On April 22, 2022, claimed it had not located any of its invoices for payments made to MVM Inc. for services rendered in Washington state – despite ICE’s own documents describing Washington separation cases, in at least one case annotated “MVM” to indicate the company’s role.
- In July 2022, in response to UWCHR’s appeal of this determination, posted information to its website indicating the appeal would be resolved by August 8, 2022.
- Since July 2022, UWCHR has had no further communication from ICE regarding this request.
2) Northwest Detention Center abuses
Through past research, UWCHR has obtained records from ICE and GEO showing abuses at the Northwest Detention Center. Our published reports explore conditions at the facility including: human rights standards, sanitation of food and laundry, allegations of medical neglect, use of solitary confinement, COVID-19 and health standards, and reporting of sexual assault and abuse.
On August 21, 2020, UWCHR researchers filed a FOIA request seeking Contract Discrepancy Forms created by ICE employees for the NWDC, documents relating to investigations undertaken by ICE in response to GEO’s deficient performance as reported in those CDRs, and documents relating to written recommendations made in light of any such investigations.
ICE’s contract with GEO for the operation of the NWDC specifically requires the creation of these forms. They matter: ICE and GEO officials have repeatedly cited their rigorous standards for facility operations as developed to prevent abuses, in part by guaranteeing a swift process of investigation and remediation if abuses happen. How has the agency responded to hold GEO accountable for suffering on its watch?
After UWCHR requested this information in August 2020, ICE responded by:
- In November 2020, claiming it had emailed UWCHR about the case in September, although no such email was ever received by UWCHR.
- Claiming that locating the documents requested would be “overly burdensome,” requiring UWCHR to reduce the scope of its request.
- On August 27, 2021, saying it was releasing 78 pages of documents, but only including 5 pages, without explanation as to the missing 73.
- On October 7, 2021, accepting UWCHR’s insistence that all pages be released, but – rather than releasing them – mandating a new search process.
- Since October 2021, failing to communicate further about this matter.
If ICE is truly upholding the conditions in its contract with GEO Group, these documents are required, and should be readily accessible. We’ve been waiting over two years. What’s ICE hiding?
3) Deportation flights
In response to criticism by DHS’ own Office of the Inspector General in 2015, ICE Air Operations – the branch of Enforcement and Removal Operations responsible for placing thousands of people on privately-operated deportation flights each month – responded, in writing (https://www.oversight.gov/sites/default/files/oig-reports/OIG_15-57_Apr15.pdf, p. 19) that it had developed and implemented a new set of Standard Operating Procedures. UWCHR requested a copy of those Procedures in order to investigate to what extent they contemplate the safety and well-being of deportee passengers.
Having safety standards on deportation flights matters. Research by UWCHR and others have documented violence and abuse on planes. For example, passengers on a 2017 flight to Somalia have provided sworn testimony describing physical beatings, the use of straitjackets, verbal abuse and threats, and the denial of access to restrooms, forcing them to soil themselves in their seats. Passengers on flights to Nepal, Bangladesh, and India reported abuses such as punching and kicking that left some passengers bloodied and crying. Passengers described deportees who resisted boarding the plane being given electric shocks and forcibly placed in body bags, then carried or tossed aboard. And more recently, multiple Cameroonians reported being locked in a full-body restraint device known as “The Wrap” on flights to Africa. As we’ve documented in UWCHR reports on ICE Air, these conditions amount to torture in the skies.
Yet when UWCHR researchers requested a copy of ICE Air’s Standard Operating Procedures – a document ICE had already stated was guiding the agency’s deportation operations – on March 24, 2019, ICE responded by:
On October 4, 2019, indicating on the agency’s FOIA portal that the document would be released by May 8, 2019 – a date that had already passed.
- When UWCHR researchers reviewed the web portal on January 22, 2020 and noticed the case was listed as closed and emailed asking why, ICE responded on March 2, 2020 stating that the document had already been released, and instructing UWCHR to check its spam filter. (It wasn’t there.)
- Declining to respond to emails regarding the case, forcing UWCHR to file an appeal, which ICE acknowledged and then closed, without explanation or documentation, on July 12, 2022.
If ICE developed these protocols in 2015, to ensure improved operations in response to public criticism of its deportation operations, why is the agency resorting to illegal subterfuge to hide them?