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Public Radio International
May 22, 2014

These open government advocates are suing the federal government for access to immigration data
By Angilee Shah

TRAC co-directors Susan B. Long and David Burnham have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by blocking their access to data. Long and Burnham say ICE unfairly classified the research organization as a commercial entity, thus subjecting them to fees associated with gathering and sharing the requested data. TRAC has been seeking data on immigration since 2005; Long says they routinely make six requests per month. But this is the first time ICE has classified TRAC as a commercial entity. Long says that TRAC is a nonprofit, like other departments at Syracuse University, and makes immigration data freely available on its website. They charge fees to use some of the tools and server space required to analyze data to cover a portion of their operating costs. For Long, these lawsuits are about making immigration enforcement more transparent. She has requested that ICE provide an index of the data they are tracking, so researchers like her can make more focused requests for information. Right now, she says, researchers might have clues about what data is available from reports and statements, but they don’t have a full picture of what government agencies are doing to enforce immigration laws. “It’s like a mystery, trying to put the pieces together,” Long says. “It’s the blind man feeling the elephant.” Long offers this example of the kind of data they would like to access: Local police use “ICE detainers” to hold individuals slated for deportation proceedings. Many people, she says, would like to know how often these detainers are used in their communities and how often they result in deportations, but that data simply is not available. “There is no way to trace what happens, even in a statistical way,” she says. “Information is power. If you can withhold information, you can more successfully move things in the direction that you want. If we don’t know what’s going on, we aren’t going to be contesting it,” says Long.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
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