Putting TRAC to Work
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July 2, 2015

Data group prevails in FOIA fees fight
By Josh Gerstein

A nonprofit group that gathers and analyzes large sets of government data has defeated the Obama Administration's attempt to charge fees that could make that information too expensive to obtain. U.S. District Court Judge Chris Cooper ruled this week that Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse qualifies as both an educational institution and a news media representative under the Freedom of Information Act. That relieves the group of paying search and processing fees for immigration-related FOIA requests for databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol divisions. Transparency advocates warned that DHS's decision to deny TRAC a status it was granted in many other instances was a back-door attempt to avoid complying with requests the agency deemed too burdensome. In a 14-page opinion (posted here), Cooper seemed to agree and chastised DHS for its actions. "While ICE might object to the breadth of TRACís FOIA request and question the originality and accuracy of its research reports, denying it preferred requester status is not the way to handle those concerns," Cooper wrote, adding that the group "adequately justified their request for both educational and news media status." The judge also said DHS went too far in demanding details about how TRAC planned to use the immigration data. "Plaintiffs might have avoided unnecessary litigation by explaining how they intended to use the requested records. But they were not required to do so," Cooper wrote. "TRACís past activities amply demonstrated its ability to transform the requested data into a distinct work and distribute it to the public. The agency therefore had no basis for requesting further detail on this topic.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
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