MANHATTAN (CN) – Federal authorities must turn over hundreds of documents about an immigration-control program that allegedly targeted buses and trains in upstate New York that travel along Lake Ontario, which is bordered by Canada to the north and the United States to the south, a federal judge ruled.
Nonprofit organization Families for Freedom, the lead plaintiff requesting to see these documents, believes that border police have racially profiled passengers on buses and trains largely departing from Rochester, N.Y.
In 2004, the U.S. Border Patrol opened a Rochester branch to police a new ferry service going to Toronto, which represented the area’s only crossing of the watery border of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Although the ferry shuttered two years later, Rochester’s immigration office nearly quadrupled in size at the urging of Congress, which increased staffing on the border to Canada as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the nonprofit claimed.
Release of the documents will be a boon to immigration advocates concerned about the Border Patrol’s overreach, according to Families for Freedom.
“Families for Freedom and other advocates over the years have shared serious concerns about the prevalence of racial profiling during the Customs and Border Patrol enforcement operations in Upstate New York,” Families for Freedom organizer Manisha Vaze said in a statement. “The Judge’s order demanding that the government produce information about these operations will help advocates understand how and where enforcement actions are taking place.”
Three unnamed plaintiffs fighting deportation joined the lawsuit against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
According to the complaint, all three were racially profiled and arrested in raids on Amtrak and Greyhound rides going to and from the Rochester station. They say the requested documents will help them prove that the raids ensnaring them violated their Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
In part, the plaintiffs demanded that authorities disclose arrest forms and statistics; quotas, goals, targets or expectations for Border Patrol agents; performance review standards; training materials on racial profiling; agreements between Border Patrol and Amtrak; and standards of conduct for Border Patrol officers.
Federal authorities claimed that they qualified for exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin sharply disagreed, ordering authorities to release arrest records in Buffalo from 2004 to 2009 and two documents believed to be training memoranda.
Authorities wanted to redact the names of the recipients of documents believed to describe a quota system.
Scheindlin wrote that authorities must disclose that, too.
“There is a substantial public interest in knowing whether the expectations and requirements articulated in the memoranda reflect high-level agency policy,” the 45-page ruling states. “Disclosure of these names, in conjunction with the already disclosed content of the memoranda, will help to inform the public as to ‘what their government is up to,’ as the Supreme Court has articulated as the underlying purpose of FOIA. Therefore, defendants must disclose the names of the authors and recipients of the two documents in question.”
Benjamin Locke and Ada Añon, law students working on the case through New York University’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, told Courthouse News in a phone interview that authorities have until July 1 to comply with the judge’s orders.
Locke added that the documents will give them the information they need to “conclusively say to the public: This is what they’re doing.”
He added that Judge Scheindlin has yet to rule on several other requests for information that he believes will show private transportation companies complicit in violating their passengers’ rights.
Vase, the Families for Freedom organizer, bemoaned the delay and resistance her organization faced in getting the documents.
“While this decision is a significant victory, the fact that advocates had to go to the courts to get this information illustrates the Department of Homeland Security’s complete lack of transparency about their enforcement operations,” Vase said in a statement. “Information about DHS’s actions and policies should be available to the public, without having to go through these lengthy court processes.”
A spokeswoman for the Border Patrol’s Rochester branch did not immediately respond to email and phone requests for comment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the ruling.