ACLU Fights to Halt ICE Plan to Delete Years of Records

By Shani Saxon Feb 19, 2020

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on February 18 filed court documents requesting an immediate end to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plans to delete crucial evidence of immigrant deaths and sexual abuse at the southern border, according to a report from the organization.

In a statement posted on its web site, the ACLU says it filed a “Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain records at serious risk of destruction so that they may be preserved on behalf of the public.” The organization insists it will be extremely difficult to maintain “public oversight of ICE detention” if the agency is permitted to delete “numerous types of records—including detention and civil rights complaint records from the first year of the Trump administration.” 

The ACLU states:

Specifically, we are seeking detention-related records from ICE that are scheduled to be deleted after short retention periods of only three to seven years. These records cover a wide range of ICE operations and activities, including ICE’s own on-site monitoring of detention facilities, the placement of detainees in solitary confinement, and complaints reported to the Department of Homeland Security‘s (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Alarmingly, the weekly monitoring reports of detention facilities—the same places infamous for their dehumanizing, grossly inadequate and dangerous conditions—could already be on the chopping block if they date to the earliest days of the Trump administration’s brutal anti-immigrant agenda.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) gave ICE permission to delete these records back in December 2019, but doing so could result in an even greater risk to the “the health and safety of more than 50,000 people in ICE custody every day,” the ACLU says. 

As previously reported by Colorlines, Dr. Matthew Connelly, a history professor at Columbia University, wrote an op-ed about the prospect of ICE deleting immigration detention records. He worried that future generations would fail to learn vital lessons should historical records be destroyed. “When politicians, caught committing malfeasance, claim that they will let future historians judge, you can’t possibly believe them,” he wrote.

The ACLU reports that additional social justice organizations, including the American Immigration CouncilNational Immigrant Justice Center and the National Immigration Law Center, had plans to file nearly identical FOIA requests on Tuesday as well. “Our shared purpose reflects a pillar of government accountability, “ the ACLU says in its statement. “Government agencies should not be allowed to destroy the paper trail of their incompetence and wrongdoing.”

ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Eunice Cho spoke to Newsweek about the group’s court filing. She explained that a large portion of the records facing deletion were created through anonymous tips from ICE’s “toll-free hotline for complaints about detention conditions.”

"The hotline records are likely to capture a wide pool of complaints…regarding all sorts of conditions of confinement, including medical care and including sexual assault complaints," Cho told Newsweek. Protecting these documents, according to the ACLU, will help hold ICE accountable to those affected right now and preserve history for future generations.

"We really believe that this information is important to support justice in general and that people who have been detained should have the right to vindicate their rights in terms of any abuse they have suffered," Cho said. "The destruction of this evidence will make it much more challenging."

The ACLU says the need for transparency around the ICE detention system can’t be overstated. That’s why the group is stressing the urgency of all related FOIA requests. In the end, the civil liberties union says in its statement: “We hope that Congress is watching—because it will take lawmakers’ intervention to fully protect ICE detention records in a systematic, lasting manner from an agency bent on brutalizing people in its custody and then getting away with it.”