Update on Data Case against ICE

Erick Widman

In a case stemming from an ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Second Circuit ruled against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on January 26. The ruling has broad implications for the public’s access to data held in immigration agency databases. The request sought data from ICE about removals, detentions, apprehensions, risk classification assessments, and bond, which would shed light on the experiences of individuals who had encounters with ICE at different phases of enforcement.

ICE uses unique numbers called A-Numbers to link records related to an individual. The FOIA request asked for spreadsheets of data with anonymous unique identifiers to replace the A-Numbers, which could divulge personally identifying information if revealed. ICE refused to provide these unique IDs, claiming that they would constitute the creation of “new records” and that FOIA did not require their production.

The Second Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and held that FOIA’s “broad disclosure policy” required the agency to substitute a different code, such as unique IDs consisting of “any combinations of numbers, letters, or symbols,” to provide public access. The court also considered changes to agency record-keeping and FOIA law, including the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, which emphasized the need for agencies to accommodate requesters who seek data.

The ruling may have far-reaching consequences for immigration agencies that have collected information in databases that hinder access to information about individual immigrants. Agencies must make reasonable efforts to improve the public’s access to information to meet their obligations under FOIA. ICE and other immigration agencies should align their FOIA policies, including their methods for searching and producing documents, with the court’s decision.

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