U.S. Forced to Release New “Embarrassing” Documents On Controversial Se Communities Program
Judge to Hold Hearing Today as Government Tries to Withhold More Documents
New York – In the wake of protests and civil disobedience in Chicago yesterday and across the country criticizing the Obama administration’s Se Communities program, immigrant advocates called on the government to turn over remaining documents about the program sought in a Freedom of Information lawsuit and to halt the controversial program.
A batch of unredacted documents released by court order this week, which federal district court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin called “embarrassing,” included acknowledgement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys that they would have to “rewrite” memos on whether the program is mandatory for states and localities and revealed schisms between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the right of states and localities to opt out of the program. In her order, Judge Scheindlin chided the agencies for going “out of their way to mislead the public about Se Communities,” and pointedly stated that the “purpose of the [Freedom of Information Act] is to shed light on the operation of government, not shield it from embarrassment.”
The judge has not yet ruled on whether the government must release other documents relating to the legal authority to make Se Communities mandatory. Strikingly, the government continues to attempt to withhold documents that shed light on that policy. ICE will be back in court today arguing it should be able to keep secret documents relating to the agency’s purported legal basis to impose S-Comm on unwilling states like Massachusetts, Illinois and New York.
The documents are being sought in a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law with the law firm of Mayer Brown LLP on behalf of the National Day Laborer Organization Network.
One previously redacted email chain of over 100 pages shows the director of Se Communities, David Venturella, dodging questions from Margo Schlanger, an important official from the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (OCRCL). When ordering release of this document, Judge Scheindlin observed that the exchange showed “clearly obfuscating” and “non-responsive” answers from ICE in response to a request for clarification from OCRCL about Se Communities policy. DHS000196-000317.
Another email chain from July 2010 discussing a draft response to Representative Zoe Lofgren’s letter requesting clarification on the agency’s opt-out policy indicates that the FBI was considering an opt-out option. The FBI had concerns that if no opt-out was allowed, states might consider not sending fingerprints to the FBI for other purposes. The email notes that “moving away from the mandatory stance” would require “S1” (Secretary Napolitano) and AG approval. ICE FOIA 10-2674.0002039.
The back-and-forth and deception was clearly frustrating to ICE officials. In an angry email dated August 6, 2010, a Se Communities employee comments: “We never address whether or not it is mandatory – the answer is written to sound like it is but doesn’t state it. It’s very convoluted – or is that the point? I’m all about shades of grey but this really is a black and white question…Is it mandatory? Yes or No. Ok, so not such an easy question to answer.” ICE FOIA 10-2674.0011165-ICE FOIA 10-2674.11171.
Commenting on the documents, Sunita Patel, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights said, “The previously redacted portions of these documents—now public for the first time—reveal the extent of ICE’s deceit and political game-playing in its communications with states and localities. Perhaps more disconcerting, though, is the confusion and flip-flopping within the agency about their own policies and plans for deployment of such a high-impact and unprecedented program.”
Added Bridget Kessler, an attorney with the Cardozo Immigration Justice Clinic, “These newly unredacted documents signal that the fight is not over yet. ICE’s purportedly ‘mandatory’ S-Comm policy appears to lack a sound legal basis, and is certainly misguided and confused as a matter of policy. Massachusetts, New York and Illinois should continue to push the federal government to honor their rejection of S-Comm.”
Sarahi Uribe, national organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said, “Even as they moved full-speed-ahead with deploying this program across the nation, at times top-level agency officials didn’t seem to fully understand—or disagreed about—how the program would work. Everywhere around the country people are resisting—there have been walkouts and arrests during S-Comm hearings, rallies, and thousands of petition signatures delivered to President Obama. The time has come. It’s time to halt S-Comm.”
The groups said they will continue to litigate this case to obtain the full information about S-Comm that the public is entitled to.
Visit CCR’s NDLON v. ICE case page or the joint website, UncovertheTruth.org, for an index of the newly released documents, the text of the FOIA request, the lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York and all other relevant documents.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. Visit www.ccrjustice.org.
The mission of the National Day Laborer Organization Network is to improve the lives of day laborers in the U.S. by unifying and strengthening its member organizations to be more strategic and effective in their efforts to develop leadership, mobilize day laborers in order to protect and expand their civil, labor and human rights. Visit www.ndlon.org.
The Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law was founded in 2008 to provide quality pro bono legal representation to indigent immigrants facing deportation. Under the supervision of experienced practitioners, law students in the Clinic represent individuals facing deportation and community-based organizations in public advocacy, media and litigation projects. Visit www.cardozo.yu.edu.