November 14, 2019
If you’re hoping to check the status of your Freedom of Information Act request with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, you might not be able to. ICE’s online FOIA database hasn’t been updated for five months, and their representatives are seemingly unreachable. When CREW searched for a FOIA request the organization sent in September, DHS’s tracking system indicated that the request didn’t exist.
On September 11, 2019, CREW filed a FOIA request with ICE regarding its contracts with LaSalle Corrections, a private prison company based in Louisiana. Despite Congress’ mandate that ICE decrease detentions, ICE has opened six new prisons with LaSalle since February.
CREW received acknowledgement of its request on October 8. In the confirmation email, ICE invoked a ten-day extension because the request “seeks numerous documents that will necessitate a thorough and wide-ranging search,” and said that the FOIA’s status could be checked online or by contacting the FOIA office over phone or email.
On November 6, CREW attempted to check the status of the FOIA request online. After entering the confirmation number into DHS’ website, the search result said “There is no FOIA request in the system for that number.” A disclaimer at the top of the page tells the user that DHS is “currently experiencing issues with checking more recent FOIA requests, and that requests submitted after June 15, 2019 “may not appear in the results.” DHS says the agency is “working to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.” The webpage also states that the “Status information is current as of 6/22/2019.” Repeated searches later in the week produced the same result.
Given these limitations, CREW attempted to reach out to ICE’s FOIA office over the phone and through email on the same day. The phone call was unanswered and directed to a full voicemail. CREW then emailed the office to inquire about the status of its FOIA request. After a full business week, the email still sits unanswered. CREW also followed up with a second phone call, only to have the same result.
The experience raises a number of questions: why hasn’t DHS updated or been able to update its FOIA tracking site for nearly five months? How are people supposed to communicate with the agency about FOIA requests? Does the FOIA request CREW submitted exist within ICE or DHS’ system?
Each of these questions is especially troubling given the need for increased oversight at DHS and ICE. As mentioned above, ICE is defying Congress by continuing to expand detentions by contracting with private prisons. CREW also sued DHS over its failure to create records of families separated at the border under the family separation policy. Reports from DHS’s own inspector general show a lack of oversight, particularly as it relates to contracts, and dire conditions at detention facilities.
ICE has a legal and ethical responsibility to be transparent with the public. By failing to even acknowledge the existence of a FOIA request, or provide actual outlets for communication about records requests, it is failing to uphold that standard, at a time where it is more needed than ever.