(CN) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security cannot toss a lawsuit pushing for the release of documents about immigration-enforcement priorities in Houston, a federal judge ruled.
Although deportations have risen under the Obama administration, Judicial Watch accused the White House of secretly implementing a "stealth amnesty" program toward undocumented immigrants.
The conservative watchdog group cites as evidence a June 3, 2010, memo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton urging field officers, special agents and chief counsel to use "prosecutorial discretion" in deportation cases, particularly with victims of domestic violence and military veterans.
The four-page memo stated, in part, that customs could only afford to deport 4 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
"In light of the large number of administrative violations the agency is charged with addressing and the limited enforcement resources the agency has available, ICE must prioritize the use of its enforcement personnel, detention space, and removal resources to ensure that the removals the agency does conduct promote the agencies highest enforcement priorities, namely national security, public safety and border security," the memo stated.
Gary Goldman, ICE's chief counsel in Houston, passed on the memo to his office, with further instructions, on Aug. 16, 2010. Two weeks later, Judicial Watch sent Homeland Security a Freedom of Information Act request. It filed a lawsuit the following May.
Homeland Security eventually released 237 pages of documents, 191 of which were redacted.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly allowed Judicial Watch to try to expose the undisclosed information on Jan. 27, pointing to three "egregious examples" of Homeland Security's extreme secrecy.
In one document, "apart from the subject line, which reads 'Prosecutorial Discretion,' everything substantive has been redacted," the decision states.
Another document does not disclose the author or recipient.
A third is completely blacked out under a statement that says: "This is how various presenters presented their messages to us."
"In the end, DHS's generalized and non-specific showing fails to satisfy the Court that the attorney-client privilege has been properly invoked in connection with the information withheld from Judicial Watch," the order states.
Homeland Security can redact three spreadsheets under work-product privilege, and the agency can to try to defend the other disclosures in future hearings, Kollar-Kotelly said.
"As before, the court shall afford DHS a further and final opportunity to establish that the deliberative process privilege applies to the information withheld from these documents and that all reasonably segregable information has been released to Judicial Watch," the order states.
Deportation rates have reportedly risen steadily since Obama took office.
"Of the 396,906 deportations from October 2010 through September of this year, more than half were illegal immigrants with felony or misdemeanor convictions, a percentage that has increased steadily since the end of the George W. Bush administration," according to a Los Angeles Times article.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation made the same finding about government secrecy.
"A study released in December of this year by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and OpenTheGovernment.org found the administration was withholding information using nine of the most common exemptions 33% more than George Bush's last full year in office," the foundation said.
Judicial Watch and the agency must file a joint status report by Feb. 8 to schedule further proceedings.
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