By Heath Haussamen
A recent tweet from U.S. Immigrants and Customs Enforcement (ICE) revealed that the agency had arrested an Arkansas man on “child sex tourism charges.”
That arrest fit the narrative ICE spreads – that immigrants are criminals who need to be deported – so the agency released details.
But try to get information on a detained immigrant not wanted for any crime other than living in the United States without legal status, and you get a different answer. Last month, after four days of back-and-forth emails, an ICE spokeswoman told me the agency would release no information on a case I was asking about “absent a signed privacy waiver from the individual.”
For days, she said she was researching my request. She could have given me that answer from the start. That’s called being given the runaround.
Unfortunately, ICE and other immigration enforcement agencies are allowed to do just that.
Local and state transparency issues should be spotlighted during this year’s Sunshine Week. While New Mexico has some of the stronger state-level transparency laws in the nation, getting agencies to comply is often challenging.
At least at the local and state level we have recourse through the courts and law enforcement. But federal immigration enforcement agencies like ICE are not required to release information about people they’re detaining.
As The Texas Tribune recently reported, ICE “provides detailed immigration histories of ‘criminal aliens’ only when it chooses to — like after high-profile cases that spark local outrage. ICE refused, meanwhile, to give the Tribune identifying information about any significant slice of the immigrant population it detains, deports or releases — extending privacy protections even to nine of the state’s 12 undocumented death row inmates.”
That makes it really challenging to learn about what immigration authorities have been doing since Donald Trump became president – and whether arrests in Doña Ana County and elsewhere since he took over are “routine,” as ICE insists, or the military operation Trump claims.
Thanks to reporting by journalists and information from activists, we know that the numbers of people detained may not be higher than under former President Barack Obama, but there is a difference: Folks living in the United States without legal status but not otherwise wanted for a crime were usually left alone before. Now, it appears, agents are detaining such people.
Regardless of whether you agree with that, it’s a significant policy shift that affects people living in our communities and rips families apart. It deserves public scrutiny so people can hold elected officials accountable for what their government is doing.
The Boston Globe recently asked Trump to adopt a new level of transparency.
“President Obama should not have allowed this vast system to jail and deport people in secret, and you should not, either,” Globe editor Brian McGrory wrote to Trump. “We urge you to end this secrecy once and for all.”
The selective release of information is deceptive. Real transparency gives us access to data and people’s stories – all stories, not just those that fit a political agenda.
Officials with ICE have complained that reporting on recent arrests was erroneous, irresponsible and harmful. That’s crap. If you want us to report facts, give us facts. If you don’t, you’re to blame when you feel misrepresented. We’re doing our best to find the truth without your assistance.
We should all join the Boston Globe in demanding transparency from immigration enforcement agencies.
Haussamen, a Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande Chapter Board member from Las Cruces, runs NMPolitics.net, a news organization devoted to hard-hitting, fair exploration of politics and government that seeks to inform, engage and build community. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at /haussamen, or on twitter @haussamen.
It’s Sunshine Week, which is all about your right to know. We’ll be rolling out all kinds of content on this site and on social media. This “Gray Skies” series will look at instances when officials, agencies and public institutions not transparent and evaded the disinfecting power of sunlight.