Amid the scenes of tearful reunions and airport protests that followed President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order on immigration, so much is still unknown to the public.
Such as, how many people were affected? And who are they?
On Jan. 30, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with U.S. Customs and Border Protection asking for the names of the Minnesota-bound travelers who were detained as a result of the order, which federal judges have put on hold.
Nothing, alas, is simple when it comes to immigration law.
I’m not the only one seeking this information.
Last week, the St. Paul City Council directed the city attorney to find out about any St. Paul residents caught up by the order. City Attorney Samuel Clark said that if he had been consulted before the council’s resolution, he would have told council members that he has no special access to that information.
Also last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed 18 FOIA requests to pry loose information from the CBP, including the numbers of travelers prevented from boarding or detained.
The ACLU did not, however, ask for names.
In past requests, “we have been routinely denied identification information,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota.
“This is not a new fight for us to get that kind of information. This is the United States. We should not have secret arrests, but we do,” Nelson said.
Federal officials won’t tell the public whom they’re detaining because, they say, that would violate the detainees’ privacy. That’s right. They are considered potential threats to the nation, but their reputations are still protected.
“As you know the Privacy Act precludes the release of names of travelers,” Daniel Hetlage, a CBP spokesman, said via e-mail.
But wait. Trump issued another security-related executive order, two days before the travel ban, that directed agencies to “exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information.”
He may have been influenced by an open letter written in January by the editor of the Boston Globe, asking Trump to lift the secrecy around immigration arrests and court proceedings.
The Globe reported last year how that secrecy threatened public safety — by shielding the names of some criminals — and also victimized law-abiding immigrants.
When I pointed out the president’s suspension of privacy protections for nonresidents, Hetlage said I would have to acquire that information by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
So I turned my attention once again to the CBP FOIA office.
The customs and border agency has been bombarded by requests lately — 345 arrived on Thursday alone. The average turnaround time for a “complex” request, which I’m sure mine is, was 238 days in 2015.
Sharon Deshield, who works in CBP’s FOIA office, told me that the agency understands the public interest in this issue, so it’s moving all requests related to the executive order to the front of the line.
But it will be the parent agency of CBP, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, that will coordinate the release of the information, she said.
“That will be a little slowdown factor too,” she said.
I’m not counting on any executive orders to speed up this process.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.