SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The federal government is withholding records on its immigration bond system from the public, including how much money it collects and how it spends unclaimed bond money, an immigrant advocacy group claims in court.
In a federal lawsuit Wednesday, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus says the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement won’t release the bulk of records on immigration bond policies and practices.
“Despite the significant number of noncitizens who are affected by defendants’ bond system and the large amount of money at issue, the public knows very little about defendants’ immigration bond program,” the group says in its 27-page complaint.
Immigration bonds can and do vary widely, by thousands of dollars, depending on locations, nationality, Border Patrol district, even, immigration attorneys say, the attitude or mood of the immigration office that sets them.
The Asian Law Caucus filed a Freedom of Information Act request in February 2016, seeking five years of records on immigration bond policies, memos and emails, including how the government determines bond amounts and decides when bonds should be issued, canceled or breached.
The San Francisco-based nonprofit also sought records on the number of bond requests granted and denied; average bond amounts for those with and without counsel; number and dollar amounts of bonds posted, breached and canceled; amount of unclaimed bond money; how unclaimed bond money is spent; and how ICE notifies people that their bonds are canceled, forfeited or breached.
The government responded by providing three documents: instructions for completing Form I-352, an immigration bond contract; a blank copy of Form I-352; and a copy of its Enforcement and Removal Operations Management Handbook from August 2014.
The Asian Law Caucus said the response was “entirely devoid of correspondence, communication, memoranda, and policy documents,” though the handbook cited documents with “detailed instructions” for posting cash bonds, handling cash, increasing and decreasing bond amounts, and issuing cancellation notices.
The handbook states that money from breached bonds is placed in a special fund to “pay for detention bed space and costs incurred in collecting amounts due on breached bonds.”
According to the handbook, the government collected about $243 million in bond payments in 2013, but refused to disclose how many bond payments it accepted, the value of those bonds, or how much unclaimed bond money it kept.
After its FOIA decision was appealed, the government eventually released a 1-page spreadsheet showing the number and value of cash and surety bonds posted, breached, and canceled in fiscal year 2015.
According to that spreadsheet, the government recorded 37,258 bonds valuing more than $277 million that year. It retained more than $42 million from 8,566 breached bonds, but failed to account for 3,774 bonds that were neither breached nor canceled in fiscal 2015, according to the complaint.
The government also released a policy memo from April 2008, which cited several other policies and procedures that were withheld, according to the lawsuit.
The Asian Law Caucus says the government improperly invoked exemptions for “personnel and medical files” and “law enforcement purposes,” which are designed to protect privacy, to justify withholding the records.
Even if those exemptions apply, any privacy interest would be outweighed by the public interest of obtaining information “to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny,” the group says in its complaint.
“The Asian Law Caucus’s FOIA request was designed to address the substantial and growing public concern with defendants’ immigration bond practices, including concerns about how financially hard defendants’ bond system impacts immigrant communities, concerns about unclaimed bond money that should be returned to noncitizens and their family members, and concerns that private companies—and perhaps defendants—are profiting from the current immigration bond system,” the complaint states.
The Asian Law Caucus seeks a court order directing the government to release the requested records within 30 days, waiver of fees, and costs of suit.
It is represented by Jennifer Stark with the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, part of the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School.
Anoop Prasad, senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Clinic, did not immediately respond to an email request for an interview after hours Wednesday.
ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said in an email that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.