A federal judge has ordered the US Department of Homeland Security to disclose the names of thousands of criminal immigrants released in the United States because their homelands refused to take them back, handing the news media a rare victory against one of the most secretive agencies in the federal government.
US District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, ruling in New York on a lawsuit filed by The Boston Globe, rejected the Obama administration’s argument that providing the newspaper with the names of criminals freed since 2008 would violate the immigrants’ privacy. Instead, the judge ordered the agency to make public the first comprehensive list of criminal immigrants released in the United States since a crucial Supreme Court decision in 2001.
“The public has an interest in knowing how [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] handles aliens convicted of crimes who are required to be released,” the judge wrote in her ruling Thursday, noting that some of the released offenders go on to commit new violent crimes.
The decision comes nearly two years after the Globe initially requested the names through a Freedom of Information Act request with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
The agency provided a list of more than 6,800 criminals, nationwide, including 201 convicted of murder and other serious offenders, but refused to provide names.
The Globe appealed to the agency and lost and then filed a lawsuit in US District Court through its parent company, The New York Times Co. The number of criminals released has since climbed past 8,500.
The US attorney’s office, which represented Homeland Security in the case, declined comment on the judge’s decision through a spokeswoman Friday. The agency has 60 days to decide whether to appeal.
A spokesman for ICE, which is part of Homeland Security, said the agency is reviewing the decision and had no additional comment.
In court filings, government lawyers had argued that the names of freed criminals were exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act because they could lead to “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Homeland Security argued that the released immigrants “have a strong interest in avoiding any embarrassment or retaliation that may be caused by the government’s publicly identifying them both as convicted criminals and illegal aliens.”
But the judge said public interest in the information outweighed any privacy concerns.
She pointed out “several questionable” decisions uncovered by the Globe in a three-part series, “Justice in the Shadows,” including the decision to release McCarthy Larngar in 2007 shortly after immigration officials called him a danger to the community.
Larngar was later arrested and charged with a violent home invasion in Rhode Island and jailed.
Immigration officials also released Huang Chen, a mentally ill man, in Texas without warning Qian Wu, a woman he had earlier attacked in New York. In January 2010, he stalked and killed her with a hammer and knife, fled, and was arrested.
Department of Homeland Security officials had dismissed the tragic examples cited by the Globe as anomalies, but the judge said the agency could not make that assertion without providing proof.
“There is merit in plaintiffs’ argument that DHS cannot dismiss the value of the Globe’s inquiry by asserting that the troubling cases “do not indicate any failing on the part of the agency” but refuse to provide the data that would refute the Globe’s suspicions,” the judge wrote.
She said the Globe established “that disclosure of the names would further the legitimate public interest in knowing how government agencies make decisions.”
Federal immigration officials have been under legal pressure to free immigrants who cannot be deported since a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that they cannot hold immigrants longer than six months if their deportation is not likely in the foreseeable future.
The Globe found that immigration officials could try to detain violent criminals longer by declaring them dangerous to the public, but the government rarely does.
The Globe also found that federal officials fail to notify most crime victims of the criminals’ release and rarely hold foreign governments accountable for refusing to accept their citizens.
The Globe hailed the decision Friday. The newspaper filed more than 20 FOIA requests as part of its broader investigation into the consequences of secrecy in the US immigration system for immigrants and Americans alike.
“The public has a right to know when the government frees criminals who were supposed to be deported,” said Globe editor Brian McGrory. “For more than a decade, federal immigration officials have kept citizens in the dark about these releases, sometimes with deadly consequences. We’re gratified that Judge Scheindlin has recognized the compelling public interest in knowing which criminal aliens are being released to US streets.”
“The court took a close look at the immigration court system, which is too often shrouded in secrecy, and rightly concluded that openness was in the public interest here,” said David E. McCraw, assistant general counsel of the New York Times Co., who handled the lawsuit with Stephen N. Gikow, the company’s First Amendment fellow.
Current and former law enforcement officials also praised the ruling as a victory for government accountability.
“This is a win for government transparency and common sense,” said Thomas H. Dupree Jr., a lawyer and former deputy assistant US attorney general who has testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the release of criminal immigrants.
Local law enforcement and domestic violence advocates said the names could aid crime victims who are unaware their attackers had been released.
US immigration data show ICE has released or deported at least 1 million criminals in the past decade, but has made just 1,000 to 3,000 victim notifications through its little-known program.
“The names of American citizens who are criminals are public record, so why should alien criminals be treated better than a citizen criminals?” said Paul Czajka, district attorney in Columbia County, New York, who prosecuted a Bangladeshi man who was released because he could not be deported. That man later killed an elderly woman.
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com.