Obama Administration Finally Agrees to Release Information about Immigration Fingerprinting Program

Monday, March 18, 2013

“Sunshine Week,” an annual event held last week by the American Society of News Editors, was particularly á propos this year as advocates of open government and civil liberties scored three legal victories against state secrecy and the murky national security exception to the Constitution. The cases included rulings striking down national security letters, ordering the CIA to reveal information about its drone assassination program, and approving a settlement that forces the government to disclose details about the “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) deportation program.


After three years and five court orders worth of stonewalling about S-Comm, the Obama administration has finally agreed to release information in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed in 2010. Initiated under the George W. Bush administration and expanded during the Obama years, S-Comm checks the fingerprints of arrestees at local jails against FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases for immigration problems. If a match results, federal agents can issue a detainer asking local authorities to hold someone for up to 48 hours. Since 2008, S-Comm has identified more than 918,000 possible problem cases—but has also ensnared citizens, as well as immigrants whose infractions are minor.


Claiming S-Comm had gone beyond its public mandate of arresting and deporting immigrants who have committed dangerous crimes, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) sued five federal agencies—the FBI, DHS, Executive Office for Immigration Review, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel—seeking information about the policies underlying the program.


Last July, Judge Shira Scheindlin issued her fifth order compelling the government to hand over specific documents, taking the opportunity “once again [to] urge the Government to heed the now famous words of Justice Louis Brandeis with which I began this opinion,” which were that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”


Pablo Alvarado, executive director of NDLON, praised the ruling and emphasized the importance of the information already disclosed. “Through this litigation, we uncovered the truth about a pernicious deportation policy that was misrepresented to the American public. It is now clear that S-COMM is primarily a tool to effectuate an unconscionable deportation quota. The program has endangered the public, radically altered relationships with law enforcement, and imperiled civil rights on a scale that exceeds what has happened in Arizona. As we close the book on this litigation, we now turn to the next phase of the fight: a termination of S-Comm as part of comprehensive immigration reform.”


Co-plaintiffs with NDLON were the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Judge Approves Landmark Settlement in Immigration Policy Case (Center for Constitutional Rights)

Immigration Advocates Get the Goods From Feds (by Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service)

National Day Laborer Organizing Network, et al. v. Unites States ICE (2013) (pdf)

First Legal Challenge to Bush-Obama Anti-Immigrant Program (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Judge Orders Release of Memo that Justifies Forced State and Local Participation in Obama Deportation Program (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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