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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Immigration Advocates Get the Goods From Feds

MANHATTAN (CN) - A federal judge approved a settlement that will expose long-hidden facets of a controversial fingerprinting and deportation program.

In April 2010, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and others sued five federal agencies - including the FBI, the Executive Office for Immigration Review and the Office of Legal Counsel - seeking information about Secure Communities, or S-Comm, under the Freedom of Information Act.

The plaintiffs, which include the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said the "error-prone" system would be instituted nationwide "without sufficient transparency, oversight, or public engagement." Ostensibly developed to target criminals, the system was allegedly flush with immigrants whom authorities fingerprinted for minor traffic offenses to meet deportation quotas.

The opponents sought the information as ammunition for a campaign urging supporters to "End Secure Communities. Don't Mend It. Pledge to Break ICE's Hold on Your Community."

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin mandated disclosure of various aspects of the program five separate times since the filing of the lawsuit.

The most recent of these orders, dated July 13, 2012, encouraged the government to "heed the words of Justice Louis Brandeis," who immortally wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

Scheindlin showed little sympathy to the government's protests that records retrieval would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Transparency is indeed expensive, but it pales in comparison to the cost to a democracy of operating behind a veil of secrecy," Scheindlin wrote. "This litigation has influenced much of the public debate over Secure Communities. The [Freedom of Information] Act has therefore served its purpose of engendering a more informed public and a more accountable government."

After she filed this opinion, the parties entered into eight months of negotiations that ended with a broad settlement Scheindlin approved Thursday night.

Under its terms, the FBI will turn over minutes of a meeting held on June 2009 calling for automatic record linking between the Automated Biometric Identification System, or IDENT, and the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS.

Homeland Security agreed to produce any nonexempt communications between its office and that of Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., about S-Comm around the time the congressman publicly complained that "politics" delayed the implementation of the program in his state.

ICE must turn over three years of data about immigration detainers, known as ICE holds.

More broadly, "DHS, ICE and the FBI will search for and, by the production date, produce to plaintiffs any non-exempt records that contain policies and procedures relating to the ability of local law enforcement officials and FBI to use mobile fingerprint devices to access lDENT and the Immigration Violators File in the Repository for Individuals of Special Concern," the stipulation states.

Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Ghita Schwarz called the settlement a "major victory for open government and an important step in stopping this dangerous program."

"It is a great disappointment, however, that we've had to come this far to get the Obama administration to come clean on its immigration policy and practices," she added.

The settlement comes toward the end of "Sunshine Week," an annual initiative by the American Society of News Editors. The Associated Press kicked off the week with a report that the Obama administration answered an unprecedented number of requests last year, but also rejected more on national security grounds than at any other year of his tenure.

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