Civil rights organizations file requests to preserve ICE records

ICE can destroy certain detainee records from as early as 2017.

Four civil rights organizations have filed separate Freedom of Information Act requests with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prevent the destruction of any records related to undocumented immigrants detained by the agency.

The American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigrant Justice Center, American Immigration Council and National Immigration Law Center filed FOIA requests after the National Archives and Records Administration approved a disposition schedule request ICE submitted in October 2015 about how long it was required to maintain records involving closed cases.

According to the organizations, allowing ICE to discard complaints about civil rights violations and inadequate medical care after three years -- unless pending litigation or a FOIA request -- is against the law.

"As one example, according to the current records schedule information, correspondence and other information related to complaints regarding inadequate medical care of a detained individual 'made by detainees or ICE stakeholders' are to be destroyed three years after CRCL [Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties] is satisfied with ICE's response to the complaint unless there is a pending FOIA or other litigation that would preserve those records," said Emily Creighton, the directing attorney of transparency with the American Immigration Council.

She added: "We feel certain that the treatment of individuals in immigration detention will be relevant for years to come. Our FOIAs are an attempt to help preserve a more complete picture of how individuals are treated by ICE."

Agencies like ICE are prohibited from destroying records required for litigation or in response to FOIA requests, said Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst at NIJC.

Not all of the records are subjected to the three-year deadline after a complaint is investigated by ICE and the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

After "several revisions" and public debate since 2017 regarding records related to deaths of detainees and allegations of sexual assault and abuse, ICE was given the green light to delete records in December 2019, according to NARA. ICE has not been accused of destroying any records.

"NARA adjusted the proposed ICE records schedule after widespread outcry, ensuring that some records would be preserved for 25 years. But NARA is still on track to allow ICE to begin destroying the important collections of records, which is what prompted our FOIA," Franzblau added.

Files related to any detainee who died while in ICE custody are to remain in ICE's system permanently, while records from detainees who filed allegations of sexual assault and abuse can only be retained for 25 years, according to NARA.

"But it's still not permanent," Creighton noted.

NIJC said the time limits on records are against the law and is calling on Congress to investigate the agency.

Franzblau said the National Archives' decision "to approve the destruction of evidence of human rights abuses against immigrants locked in ICE's detention system" was "dangerous."

NARA responded to "mischaracterizations" of the records disposition schedule in a Feb. 14 press release citing the Federal Records Act.

"These decisions were based on long-established records appraisal policies and procedures, consistent with the Federal Records Act, and are thoroughly explained in the publicly available response to comments posted on Regulations.gov.," the agency wrote.

NARA declined to comment further. ICE didn't immediately respond to requests for comment from ABC News.

During the 2019 fiscal year, ICE reported its officers arrested "approximately 143,000 aliens and removed more than 267,000 -- which is an increase in removals from the prior year."

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