Why We Don't Know More About Immigration Detention

PHOTO: Martinez

Who's being held in immigration detention centers?

A lawsuit filed against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier this week hopes to shed more light on that, asking for information like the demographic breakdown of detainees and internal inspection records of all detention facilities.

But the goal of the suit, filed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data gathering organization based at Syracuse University, is about much more than just getting this information.

"We're trying to establish the principle that they have to give us data," said David Burnham, co-director of TRAC. "We've been negotiating with them for years at the administrative level."

Since 9/11, the flow of information from federal agencies like ICE has tightened, and courts have backed them up. That includes aggregate data that doesn't identify individuals by name.

The rationale is something legal scholars call the "mosaic theory." The idea is that tiny bits of information might seem innocuous, but when used collectively, could be a threat to national security.

Perhaps the most notable example of information-turned-dangerous goes back to the trials over the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which some say help enabled the 9/11 attacks. During the trial, U.S. government intelligence-gathering methods were made public.

The mosaic theory has existed in case law since 1972, but was more aggressively employed by the Bush administration and continues to be applied by the Obama administration, according to Charles N. Davis, professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Of course, it's harder to uncover wrongdoing without access to information, Davis says. "It's the ultimate Catch 22."

As a matter of policy, ICE does not comment on pending litigation, according to Gillian Christensen, a spokesperson for the agency.

Organizations working on behalf of immigrant rights believe more transparency in the immigration system could only be a good thing. In late July, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) announced that it had infiltrated an immigration detention center in Pompano Beach, Florida, sending activists undercover and secretly interviewing detainees -- a rare unfiltered glimpse inside such a facility.

At the time, NIYA reported that it had found 60 individuals with no criminal record or prior deportations in the Florida center. But the claims lacked hard data to back it up, and ICE has said that the allegations were false.

"NIYA activists have no way of knowing the complete criminal and immigration histories of any of the subjects they have informally interviewed," Nestor Yglesias, a spokesperson for the agency, wrote in an email. "ICE cannot respond to claims from about [sic] individuals who have not been identified or to unsubstantiated anecdotes," he added.

More transparency would help activists get data to back up what they hear in interviews, says Mohammad Abdollahi, an organizer with NIYA.

"Just from hearing the stories, we know that there are low-priority individuals being deported," Abdollahi said. "It's like the information black hole right now."

The lawsuit filed by TRAC doesn't ask for the reasons behind individual detentions, but a successful case could open the door to such requests in the future.

Access to data is crucial for watchdog organizations and the media, according journalism professor Charles N. Davis.

"If you can't provide scrutiny of ICE's detention facilities, then you can't provide any meaningful scrutiny of that program whatsoever, Davis said. "It's just, 'Trust us.'"

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