The Boston Globe has filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security for refusing to disclose the names of thousands of criminal immigrants it released in the United States over the past four years, sometimes with tragic results.
Federal officials acknowledge that, since 2008, they’ve released about 8,500 criminal immigrants who were scheduled to be deported after serving their criminal sentences, but their home countries would not take them back.
However, in January the officials rejected the Globe’s formal request for the names, and again on appeal, saying the immigrants’ right to privacy outweighed the public interest in knowing their identities. They released only a list of the immigrants’ crimes, and the dates and general area where they were released.
But the Globe contends release of the information is a matter of public safety. The government has not notified most crime victims of the release, and many released immigrants have gone on to commit new crimes, such as a criminal from Bangladesh who murdered an elderly woman in New York state last year, just weeks after immigration officials released him.
“It is hard to fathom why the government believes the public must be denied the names of criminals, many dangerous, who are released into society,” said Globe editor Martin Baron. “Who benefits from this policy? An obvious beneficiary is the government itself, which avoids scrutiny and accountability.”
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security and its agency that runs the immigrant detention system, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment on the suit.
But a senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the agency, said the department releases more detailed information on a case by case basis when there is a significant public interest.
The official also said the administration has made significant strides in making the massive immigration system more open to public scrutiny, such as posting online the names of immigrants who die in immigration custody and providing a searchable database so relatives can find detainees.
Obama has called for all federal agencies to be more open about sharing information, saying that “in the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
But his administration has repeatedly used exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act to reject Globe requests for information about immigrants’ arrests and court records.
Over the past year, the Globe filed more than 20 Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security for a wide variety of information, including the names of immigrant fugitives, the names of immigrants arrested in a national sweep of criminals, and the case file of a Mexican national with no criminal record who disappeared in immigration custody.
Homeland Security consistently refused to release the immigrants’ names and other information, citing privacy protections. The Justice Department also refused to release individual immigrants’ case files and provided only the redacted, final decisions of immigration judges, which may omit key details.
In the Globe’s complaint, the newspaper argues that it needs the names of the released criminals to determine whether the Department of Homeland Security is protecting the public.
“It is unclear, without access to the names, whether [the Department of Homeland Security] is performing its duties lawfully and adequately,” the Globe said in the lawsuit, filed in New York through its parent company, the New York Times Co.
‘It is hard to fathom why the government believes the public must be denied the names of criminals, many dangerous, who are released into society.’
Critics are increasingly demanding more transparency from the government as immigration continues to inflame national debate and devour billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Last year alone, the federal government detained a record 429,247 immigrants for possible deportation.
Many groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Judicial Watch, have filed lawsuits against the federal government demanding information. In April, the Union Leader newspaper in Manchester, N.H., sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement in federal court for refusing to release the names of immigrants arrested in raids last year.
“Supposedly illegal immigrants with serious criminal records are entitled to privacy, but the public isn’t entitled to know anything?” the newspaper said in an editorial in April.
Federal immigration officials frequently announce arrests of gang members and other serious criminals. But officials kept mum in 2010 when they arrested the owner of a Massachusetts flight school, who had overstayed his visa and was teaching other illegal immigrants to fly small planes. The Globe learned of the arrests months later and discovered that the owner was still flying airplanes. The school closed after the article was published.Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.