Immigrants Fight Disclosure of Personal Info

     (CN) — Four undocumented immigrants claim a federal judge trampled their privacy rights when he ordered their contact information be filed with his court as part of sanctions against the U.S. Justice Department.
     The self-styled “Fearless Four” are immigrants who were granted protection from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program the Department of Homeland Security started in 2012.
     Those who qualify obtain “lawful presence” status, allowing them to live in the U.S. free of deportation and get driver’s licenses and federal work permits, for renewable two-year terms.
     The government expanded DACA in November 2014 to increase the number of people eligible and the term of deferred deportation from two to three years.
     DACA recipients are commonly called “dreamers” by immigrant advocacy groups and the media. The government has enrolled more than 500,000 immigrants in DACA.
     Expanded DACA fell victim to a lawsuit brought by Texas and 25 other Republican-led states, which led to an injunction blocking the program from taking effect as scheduled in February 2015 and a U.S. Supreme Court stalemate in June that effectively upheld the injunction ordered by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas.
     But the 4-4 tie in the Supreme Court did not end the case because a sanctions order that Hanen issued against the government in May, which he stayed in June, has not been resolved.
     Hanen said in the order that Justice Department attorneys lied to him by saying that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, or USCIS, hadn’t issued any three-year permits under the new DACA guidelines, when in fact they had granted more than 100,000.
     The government denies its attorneys purposely lied to Hanen, but admits it has not rescinded the three-year permits.
     “USCIS has not taken any action on the approximately 108,000 three-year [employment authorization documents] that were approved and mailed by USCIS on or before the February 16, 2015, injunction date and that have never been returned or reissued by USCIS,” agency spokeswoman Carolyn Gwathmey told Courthouse News in May.
     Hanen ordered the Justice Department to file under seal the personal information of 50,000 undocumented immigrants who were granted three-year DACA permits from Nov. 20, 2014 to March 3, 2015, and who live in one of the 26 plaintiff states.
     “This list should include all personal identifiers and locators including names, addresses, ‘A’ file numbers and all available contact information, together with the date the three-year renewal or approval was granted. This list shall be separated by individual plaintiff state,” Hanen wrote.
     A-file number is short for alien-registration number. USCIS assigns one to all immigrants who aren’t yet naturalized.
     Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigration Law Center, four immigrants claim in an amicus brief filed Friday that Hanen’s order violates their privacy rights.
     The four immigrants include Oklahoma resident Angelica Villalobos, a 31-year-old mother of four, Juan Escalante, 27, of Tallahassee, Fla. and two female Texas residents who wish to remain anonymous.
     Fifth Circuit precedent has established that sanctions must be as light as possible and limited to “the need to ensure that the court can carry out its constitutional function of deciding cases before it in an orderly fashion by deterring further misconduct,” the foursome claims in its brief.
     The dreamers claim that disclosing their personal information illegally puts them “at risk of identity theft, fraud, discrimination, harassment, and stigma” when neither they nor the tens of thousands of other immigrants affected by the order are parties to the case. They also claim that Hanen admitted the order is not just to deter misconduct, but to benefit the plaintiff states.
     “This order is tailored to give the 26 plaintiff states some avenue for relief from the possibility of any damage that may result from the misconduct of the defendants’ lawyers and to prevent future harm to any plaintiff state due to the government’s misrepresentations,” Hanen wrote in the sanctions order.
     Villalobos and Escalante say they are concerned the government’s disclosure of their information to the judge could be used by those hostile to undocumented immigrants to target them and their families, and could have a chilling effect on government-immigrant relations.
     The U.S. Constitution only allows disclosure of sensitive personal information if a “legitimate state interest ‘outweigh[s] the threat’ to privacy interests,” the brief states, citing Fifth Circuit case law.
     Another decision by the New Orleans-based appellate court precludes the release of the immigrants’ information to Hanen, according to the amicus brief.
     The Fifth Circuit found that a federal judge abused their discretion by assessing sanctions against attorney John Fox, ordering Fox to produce his personal tax returns, which the appellate court deemed “highly sensitive documents,” in the case Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America v. Energy Gathering Inc.
     “Additionally relevant here, the court indicated that the sanction would have been improper even if the district court had reviewed the tax returns in camera,” Friday’s brief states.
     Hanen’s sanctions were not limited to the immigrant-data request.
     He also ordered all Justice Department attorneys who practice in federal or state court in the 26 states to take three hours of annual ethics training for the next five years.
     The government claims that complying with that training could cost it $8 million.
     A status conference on the sanctions is set for Aug. 31 in Hanen’s Brownsville courtroom.
     Though Hanen asked for the dreamers’ data to be filed under seal, ACLU attorney Omar Jadwat said that doesn’t ensure it will remain confidential.
     “There is still a risk, for two reasons. First, even sealed information can and does get disclosed without authorization (whether intentionally, i.e, because malicious persons have or gain access, or unintentionally). Second, the judge has said that he may authorize release of this personal information to the states if they ask for it,” Jadwat told Courthouse News in June.
     The Obama administration designed DACA to integrate into society immigrants who were brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents before they turned 16.

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