By Josh Leach on September 15, 2017
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has provisionally approved a request by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to destroy records related to detainees, which include, “incidents of sexual abuse and assault, escapes, deaths while in agency custody, telephone rates charged to detainees, alternatives to detention, logs and reports on status of detainees and detention facilities, and location and segregation of detainees.”
UUSC sent the following comment in response, urging NARA to deny this request:
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is gravely concerned by reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seeks to destroy records pertaining to the sexual abuse, death, and solitary confinement of people in ICE detention. These documents provide a crucial evidentiary basis for future efforts to expose ICE abuses, hold the agency accountable, and offer a truthful historical reckoning of the nature of U.S. immigration enforcement. In light of the agency’s persistent failure to properly report and investigate human rights abuses, it would be grossly irresponsible to allow ICE to eliminate evidence of its own misconduct.
The government’s arguments in favor of destroying these documents are deeply flawed. UUSC rejects the claim put forward by federal appraisers, for instance, that retaining records of sexual abuse is unnecessary because “ICE creates annual reports on incidents of allegations of sexual abuse or assaults of individuals in ICE custody.” ICE has shown time and again it cannot be trusted to properly investigate its own officers and their actions. In April, UUSC’s partners at Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of victims of sexual abuse and assault in ICE detention. CIVIC found that between May 2014 and July 2016, ICE received on average more than one complaint of sexual abuse per day. Yet the agency investigated a mere 2.4% of the total. CIVIC also documented cases of retaliation and silencing of victims who reported abuse. In one instance, a woman was confined in solitary for over a week after she filed a harassment complaint against an officer.
ICE’s request to destroy documents comes at a time, moreover, when the agency is already under justified scrutiny for its lack of openness and transparency. After ICE announced plans for a massive deportation raid last week called “Operation Mega,” shortly after the termination of DACA, and then seemed to change course in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, immigrant rights groups mobilized nationwide to lodge Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests at every ICE field office, demanding clarity about the agency’s plans and tactics. Danny Cendejas of the Detention Watch Network declared: “ICE is an agency that regularly lies and actively hides information from public view.” UUSC’s partners at CIVIC and Grassroots Leadership agree, providing numerous examples of this pattern of deception in previous ICE raids. The UndocuBlack Network, also a UUSC partner, also have a pending FOIA request with the Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE, to expose its decision-making process regarding the fate of 50,000 Haitian immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
Plainly what is needed is to shed more light on a secretive agency whose decisions daily impact the lives, freedom, and dignity of millions of non-citizens. To allow ICE to eliminate records of possible human rights violations at its own hands as early as 2023 (and at a rate much faster than other federal agencies) would be a dangerous step in the wrong direction. The thousands of people who pass through immigration detention each year without trial or due process deserve better. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) should reject ICE’s request and ensure the preservation of these documents for future generations.