The leaders of a renowned research group based in New York are accusing the nation's largest law enforcement agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security of obstructing the public's understanding of government efforts to regulate immigration.
In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last week, the co-directors of the the Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University allege ICE and DHS violated the Freedom of Information Act, the Administrative Practices Act, and the administrative rules of both agencies multiple times, according to a press release published on its website Monday.
The lawsuit came as a result of a recent decision by ICE, which is the enforcement branch of DHS, to charge researchers additional fees for data after the agency classified TRAC as seeking records to further a commercial trade for profit. Until then, TRAC had been classified as either an educational institution or news media.
"If we can't get access to the data, then we can't do anything," TRAC co-director Susan B. Long, an associate professor of managerial statistics at the Syracuse's Martin J. Whitman School of of Management, told BuzzFeed. "We try to make data about what the federal government does in enforcing the immigration laws accessible to the public, so people can understand what the government is or isn't doing; so that they can separate rhetoric from the underlying facts of what's actually going on from the government's own data."
David Burnham, a former New York Times investigative reporter who is now an associate research professor at the university, is the other co-director. They have led TRAC for more than 25 years, making data and reports about "a wide range of long-hidden government activities" available to news organizations, academic groups, Congress, and the government itself, they say.
Just last month, TRAC shed light on the Obama administration's claims that immigration officials are focused on deporting dangerous criminals with data analysis that revealed many were deported on minor offenses. They also keep data on ICE's use of detainers and their handling of FOIA requests, among other things.
Long says the reasons for the sudden switch to a "commercial" category are unclear, but could be related to fees TRAC charges for training and for access to its data warehouse. She also points to the fact that the fee is nothing new. "We've had that since the beginning," she says.
ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The change in category could erect a major cost hurdle for TRAC, which depends on limited research grants for funding and files requests every month to keep databases up to date, Long says. Commercial entities are charged for copies as well as any time spent researching an information request, whereas education institutions and the media are only charged for copies.
"If they're doing it with us, then certainly there might be other requesters where this is happening. And you know, government transparency is important," Long said.
Los Angeles-based reporter.
Contact Juan E. Gastelum at juan.gastelum+DONE@buzzfeed.com.
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