Disturbing Lack of Transparency Implicates Government Data Reliability

Knowing what the government is doing behind closed doors is often the first step in ensuring that the government respects the liberties of the people it is created to serve. Transparency is especially important to the immigrant communities served by AILA attorneys, as the rights and liberty of these communities have faced near-constant threats in the last several years.

However, a disturbing trend in rolling back transparency has evolved within the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), colloquially known as immigration court, in the last month. This trend is particularly disturbing in a time when many of the government offices with which we as immigration attorneys work on a daily basis are finding their ability to communicate with the public restricted. Further, the ability of the legal community to raise concerns and advocate for improvements in programs is being limited in many ways. One important source of information that I turn to on a regular basis is the work that Syracuse University shares via their TRAC Immigration Reports. Unfortunately, this past week, serious concerns were raised by TRAC about the data EOIR was making available:

  • TRAC reported that the data EOIR provided them in response to a routine Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request contained numerous serious errors, making it unusable for the essential reports TRAC creates on immigration court trends that so many of us refer to and use. TRAC raised the inaccuracies first with EOIR but EOIR declined to fix the problem.
  • For several months, EOIR has, without any notice that it was doing so, begun deleting “swaths of records in their entirety from the data releases that [TRAC reports] and other members of the public received.” When TRAC raised this issue,  EOIR alleged that it was doing this for the privacy of Respondents. However, as TRAC points out, this response strains credulity, given that the data already has all identifying information removed and are completely anonymized.

The FOIA process is one of the most important legal tools the public has for advancing government transparency in the United States. FOIA was originally championed  by Democratic Congressman John Moss and Republican Donald Rumsfeld, reports the Electronic Frontier Foundation. These Congresspeople proposed the legislation in response to concerns over the growing habit of unchecked secrecy in federal agencies. President Johnson signed the Act “with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society.” Since then, FOIA has again and again been used by the public to hold the government accountable.

In an era when the safety of those who seek to protect our civil liberties, such as whistleblowers, journalists and lawyers, and undocumented activists, is under threat, it is more important than ever that the public and organizations serving the public be able to access information about government practices. This is particularly important in regard to data regarding the activities of EOIR, an arm of the Department of Justice which adjudicates often life or death cases concerning members of our immigrant communities.

As a Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights, I constantly reference Syracuse University’s TRAC reports, to demonstrate the life-saving impact of representation before the immigration court to potential volunteer attorneys, to monitor trends in human rights concerns facing the immigrant communities in the Upper Midwest that our agency serves, to develop case strategy, and to assess in collaboration with my colleagues where our limited resources can best be dedicated. The TRAC reports are the only resource of their kind: a non-partisan, regularly updated database where immigrant communities, their allies, and others seeking objective information, can assess the true impact of government policy on the lives of individuals and families in immigration court. EOIR seems uninterested in providing accurate data which is profoundly concerning.

The foundation of our democracy depends on government accountability to the people it serves. Please contact your members of Congress to express your concern regarding the EOIR’s withholding of essential data from the Syracuse University TRAC program. Our ability to effectively serve our immigrant clients and communities depends on our constant advocacy for the fair and equal enforcement of the laws protecting the rights of all.

by Alison Griffith