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Activists Sue 10 Federal Agencies Over Secrecy in Deportations

A coalition of attorneys and immigrant rights groups is suing 10 federal agencies over withholding documents related to how the Obama administration is dealing with deporting criminal immigrants.

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A coalition of attorneys and immigrant rights groups is suing 10 federal agencies over withholding documents related to how the Obama administration is dealing with deporting alleged criminal immigrants.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the Asian-Americans Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus and the Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law School, alleges the agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office of Immigration Review, have violated public records laws for not releasing information about implementing the Priority Enforcement Program, also known as PEP. The program is  intended to prioritize the deportation of what government officials have called “the worst of the worst.”

"ICE is, once again, operating in secrecy. It's time for the nation's largest police force to come clean," said NDLON executive director Pablo Alvarado.

Under PEP, which launched in November 2014, ICE determines whether an undocumented immigrant held in a county jail should be turned over to its custody for possible deportation. Jail officials uses fingerprint information to identify undocumented immigrants and alert ICE about them. 

PEP replaced the Secure Communities program, which was also mired in controversy after immigration attorneys and civil rights groups said it cast too wide a net and targeted all immigrants for deportation instead of criminals the government claimed were a priority for removal. PEP was designed to “significantly narrow the category of individuals for whom DHS will seek transfer,” according to ICE.

The lawsuit alleges the agencies have refused to disclose how PEP practices differ from Secure Communities’ policies and how PEP was implemented. The groups that filed the suit had requested the information in March 2015. In a statement, the plaintiffs said the 10 agencies have collectively released only five documents and that ICE has not provided any.

The groups say the information is needed for local governments to be more informed about a program that “has a significant impact on the public through its ostensible overhaul of immigration.”

A spokesperson for ICE said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Several lawsuits filed after Secure Communities was implemented claimed that the program violated people's civil rights by detaining them even if they were eligible to make bond or keeping them in custody longer than the time they were ordered to serve. 

Opponents of both PEP and its predecessor are pressuring some of Texas’ largest counties to end their cooperation with federal immigration officials, arguing that enforcement is solely under the purview of the federal government.

Before the change to PEP, all of Texas’ 254 counties used the Secure Communities program. Since PEP was implemented, Texas counties are still cooperating with ICE, although the agency lists Dallas County as an entity in Texas that limits its cooperation. (Records show that Dallas County only declined two ICE detainer requests between January 2014 and September 2015.)

In other states, hundreds of jurisdictions opted out of Secure Communities.

“The program has attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood, and is embroiled in litigation,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a memo to ICE officials when PEP began in 2014. “Its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws.”

Many jurisdictions have subsequently chosen not to fully participate in PEP.

Some groups in Texas maintain the policy change hasn’t made any difference, despite federal officials' promises that PEP would be less sweeping.

“The deportation rate in Travis County, Texas, home to so-called liberal oasis Austin, continues to be one of the highest in the state and the U.S. An average of 19 people a week are deported from Travis County,” said Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit group opposed to Secure Communities and PEP, in a statement in July. The group posted on its website a video clip of Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton telling county commissioners that PEP was, in essence, the same as Secure Communities and “all [the government] did was change the name.”

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