A local immigration law firm has filed two federal suits in U.S. District Court in Nashville in the past month against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, claiming the agency violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding records.
Ozment Law, a Nashville-based firm, says the suits are part of a strategy to combat a serious backlog of information requests submitted to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The FOIA Project, a research organization based out of Syracuse University, published a report this month slamming ICE management for hindering access to public records. The data show that unanswered FOIA requests for immigration records have jumped from 2,903 to 6,699 in less than one year.
“We have filed several lawsuits on behalf our clients because ICE is chronically behind in issuing and complying with the FOIA statue that requires them to furnish [individuals] with a copy of their files in a timely manner,” Elliott Ozment said.
One of the local suits was filed on July 22 on behalf of Rigoberto Ajualip-Miranda, who submitted a FOIA request to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department in December 2012 related to his upcoming immigration hearing.
The suit alleges that ICE acknowledged receipt of the request in January by referring it to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office.
The USCIS identified 129 pages of material related to the requests, but the suit alleges only 62 full pages were released, and the remaining material was referred back to the ICE. Ajualip-Miranda claims he never received any further contact from the agency.
In a similar case filed on July 11, Ozment Law alleged that Alejandro Ramirez-Anzo filed a FOIA request to ICE in April 2013 and never received the procedural acknowledgement letter that follows a request’s processing.
The suit claims Ramirez-Anzo filed an additional request through USCIS, which withheld 47 pages of the requested material under the same referral claim used in Ajualip-Miranda’s case.
Materials are being withheld because of the back-and-forth referral process, causing requests to pile up.
The FOIA Project reports that agency-to-agency referrals account for 82 percent of ICE requests, and the forwarded requests are “greatly adding to the delays experienced by the public in receiving requested immigration records.”
According to United States data, the Department of Homeland Security has the highest FOIA backlog, with 28,553 pending requests at the end of 2012, but uncompleted requests across all government agencies decreased between 2011 and 2012.
The FOIA was enacted in 1966 and gives individuals the right to access federal agency records, with certain exceptions for national security, confidential financial information and other exemptions.
Attorneys at Ozment Law say the requested documents are necessary for defending Ajualip-Miranda and Ramirez-Anzo in immigration removal proceedings.
“We cannot perform our duties as attorneys as long as we’re being denied what’s in their files,” Ozment said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee will defend the United States in the cases, said public information officer David Boling, but the office had no comment on the cases at this time.
“We have tried to work with the Department of Homeland Security, and we have given them more time than the statute really provides for, out of deference to try to avoid litigation,” Ozment said. “It became apparent to us that there was such a backlog that ICE and DHS has a systematic problem.”
The suits request that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee order ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to release the immigration records, but the attorneys at Ozment Law are hoping a barrage of cases will spur standardized change.
“What we’re hoping is that we get these papers that we’re entitled to,” Ozment said, “but also that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement will take some type of corrective action.”