The Department of Homeland Security has faced minimal accountability for abuses of power in the past, and its planned destruction of records could limit that accountability even further, including potentially covering up human rights violations. CREW and a coalition of more than 80 immigrant and civil rights advocates, government watchdogs, historians, media organizations, archivists, and researchers urge the Biden administration and the National Archives and Records Administration to immediately withdraw and reevaluate DHS records destruction schedules.
A recent ruling by a federal judge, which stopped the destruction of Immigration and Customs Enforcement records on abuse of detained people, puts into question DHS’s overall approach to determining what records should and should not be preserved for the public record and future research—especially when it comes to records reflecting abuse and neglect in the U.S. immigration system. Additionally, since NARA approved the latest DHS records destruction schedule in March 2020, several alarming reports of ICE and Customs and Border Protection abuse have come to light, particularly following the outbreak of COVID-19. As 27 members of Congress recently wrote in a letter to DHS and NARA, these events have only confirmed that “records documenting serious abuse, neglect, and misconduct in our immigration system should be preserved, not destroyed.”
The records at stake document civil rights abuses, death reviews, detainee segregation files of detained individuals in ICE and CBP custody, among other important records. This comes amidst alarming revelations of abuse at particular ICE detention facilities that have emerged in the past year. In September 2020, a whistleblower complaint provided a horrific account of a doctor performing invasive gynecological procedures on detained women without their consent at a Georgia ICE detention center. It also documented a refusal to test detained immigrants for COVID-19 and the “shredding of medical requests submitted by detained immigrants, and fabricating medical records.” Separately, an August 2020 complaint claimed that guards at an ICE detention center in Texas “sexually assaulted and harassed inmates in a ‘pattern and practice’ of abuse.” And an October 2020 complaint described alarming reports that officials at an ICE detention center in Mississippi violently coerced detained immigrants into signing their own deportation documents, including through the use of “physical abuse and pepper spray.”
These incidents are just a few of a massive number of DHS abuses reported by detained people and whistleblowers. Taxpayers continue to fund an agency that reportedly commits alarmingly frequent human rights abuses against detained people, and is now seemingly attempting to cover up its actions by destroying records of abuses and rights violations. The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed its commitment to bringing accountability and transparency to DHS. In keeping with these statements, we urge DHS and NARA to immediately withdraw ICE and CBP records destruction schedules and seek public involvement in the process of reevaluating which records, if any, should be destroyed.