Asylum Seekers May Get Parts of Exempt Records

     (CN) – A Venezuelan journalist may be entitled to some of the previously withheld asylum documents he has been seeking for two years because they don’t reveal the government’s deliberative process, a federal judge ruled.
     Nelson Mezerhane Gosen and his family sought asylum in the United States in 2010 because he claimed they faced political persecution in their home county of Venezuela.
     Gosen was the co-founder of the country’s last independent television station and he refused to shut down programming critical of the Hugo Chavez regime, according to court documents.
     His family waited in “immigration limbo” for more than three years, so Gosen filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to his pending asylum claim, the ruling states. His daughter, Maria Mezerhane de Schnapp, also requested her asylum documents.
     U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released 498 pages but withheld 55 pages and redacted 84 others. Gosen challenged the exemptions in a July 2013 lawsuit, and subsequent negotiations narrowed the number of contested documents to 77.
     Gosen’s family was notified in November 2013 that they were granted asylum, but they continued to seek access to withheld documents, court records show. Gosen also claimed the immigration service actually granted his family asylum in 2010, but waited three years to notify them.
     A federal judge ruled last year that the immigration service may have wrongly withheld some information excluded under one exemption. However, that judge also ruled that the government properly withheld most documents under three other exemptions.
     On Thursday, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled that the documents withheld under FOIA Exemption 5, which applies to privileged agency communications, are “predecisional.”
     The judge disagreed with Gosen and Schnapp’s claim that they were granted asylum before 2013. He cited evidence showing that a vetting and security check process was not completed in 2010, meaning the government could not have granted them asylum at that time.
     “There was no final agency decision to grant asylum to the Mezerhanes until November 2013; the documents at issue here predated that decision and are thus protected under the deliberative-process privilege,” Bates wrote.
     Bates, assessing Gosen and Schnapp’s FOIA actions together held that Exemption 5 applies to the disputed documents.
     “No document presents the reasons for an alleged grant of asylum in 2010. Rather, the documents in dispute were ‘prepared in order to assist’ the agency in making the November 2013 decision,” he wrote. “The documents thus exhibit the very essence of ‘predecisional’ materials.”
     However, the judge ruled that some material within the exempt documents can be released.
     “The court has reviewed the documents in question and finds that there is at least some factual material that may not expose the deliberative process,” Bates wrote. Examples of information that could be released include factual assessment introductions, published report quotes and a chronological list of testimony, according to the ruling.
     Bates ordered the government to reassess the remaining disputed pages and “disclose all reasonably segregable portions of non-exempt material,” the ruling states.

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