One of the tools AI Justice regularly uses to investigate the operation and impact of the U.S. immigration system are the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Florida state-law equivalent, Florida’s Public Records Act.
By seeking publicly available documents from the government agencies responsible for managing and operating our immigration system, we are able to determine where the government is failing to meet its obligations and were systemic problems have developed within the system.
For example, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, AI Justice suspected the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) while telling the U.S. public that it has temporarily ceased deportations of Haitians, had in fact resumed deportations. AI Justice filed a FOIA request regarding resumption of removals to Haiti and after successful litigation against ICE which tried to withhold the records, AI Justice obtained documents demonstrating that the government had resumed removals in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and despite having direct knowledge of a lethal and widespread outbreak of cholera in Haiti that killed thousands. Armed with the information obtained through our FOIA request and litigation, AI Justice was able to pressure the administration in to halting removals to Haiti and demanded an explanation from the administration for the renewed removals.
CURRENT FOIA/PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTS
1) Baker County Jail Immigrant Detention Center – AI Justice submitted a public records request to Florida’s Baker County Jail (BCJ) on April 5, 2013. BCJ failed to properly respond to AI Justice’s request. On July 24, 2013, AI Justice filed suit for enforcement under Florida’s Public Records Act against BCJ and Baker County. See Americans for Immigrant Justice v. Joey B. Dobbs, in his Official Capacity as Baker County Sheriff, and Baker County, Florida, Civ. Action No. 13-CA-138. The Court ruled in AI Justice’s favor and BCJ produced the requested records.
2) FOIA to CBP regarding CBP facilities in the Rio Grande Valley Sector – AI Justice submitted a FOIA request regarding the detention conditions in CBP facilities on July 3, 2103. CBP did not respond and AI Justice filed suit in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Miami. See Americans for Immigrant Justice v. Customs and Border Protection, Civ. Action No. 1:14-cv-20945.
AI Justice’s FOIA to CBP was based on reports of inhumane detention conditions experienced by hundreds of immigrant detainees. In earlier 2013, AI Justice attorneys, who conduct regular “Know Your Rights” presentations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, began hearing from immigrant detainees who described prolonged detention in CBP Stations along the Texas Border. AI Justice attorneys interviewed more than one hundred detainees who described the same conditions while in detention:
They were told by CBP that they were being taken to what the CBP agents referred to as the “hieleras” which is Spanish for “iceboxes” or “freezers.”
- The hieleras turned out to be a freezing cold concerete holding cells inside a CBP holding station;
- The temperature inside the concrete cells was kept so cold that the detainees’ lips chapped and split, their fingers and toes turned blue, and their faces chapped and throbbed with pain;
- The cells had no beds, no chairs, and a single toilet sitting in plain view in the corner of the cell.
- Lights remained on 24 hours a day.
- The detainees, including women and children, slept what little they could on the frigid concrete floor, frequently huddling together for warmth;
- So many detainees were placed in the cells that they were grossly overcrowded. Detainees described being held with as many as sixty other detainees in a single hielera, with all sixty individuals having to share a single toilet. Some detainees indicated that the cells were so crowded they could not stretch their arms out without touching other detainees. Other’s detained in the hieleras indicated they were so crowded that there was not enough room to lie down on the floor. Instead they tried to sleep while sitting up.
- When detainees ran out of toilet paper in the overcrowded cells—a frequent occurrence—CBP agents took hours to provide more toilet paper and typically did so only after detainees made repeated requests for more.
- The hieleras have no shower or bathing facilities. As a result, detainees described being held for as long as two weeks without being able to bath or clean themselves. This is particularly hard on female detainees who were menstruating during their detention.
- Detainees are not provided with even the most basic personal hygiene products, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, or soap.
- Detainees are not provided with a change of clothing. They remain in the clothing in which they were apprehended. Consequently many of them remain for days or weeks in soiled clothing.
- Detainees describe being fed only once every twelve hours. The “meal” consists of a bologna sandwich which was often either freezing cold or actually partially frozen. As a result, they were constantly hungry and suffered headaches.
- The only water available to the detainees is provided in a single thermos shared by all the detainees. No cups are provided to drink the water. Detainees describe the water as smelling like bleach and burning their throats when they drank it.
- No medical facilities exist at the hieleras.
- Detainees who arrive with prescription medications have their medications confiscated.
3) FOIA to ICE regarding conditions in Florida contract facilities – AI Justice submitted a FOIA request to on August 9, 2013.
4) FOIA to CBP regarding drone use in Florida – AI Justice submitted a FOIA request on August 12, 2013.
5) Public Records Request to Glades County Detention Center – AI Justice submitted a public records request on detention conditions on September 4, 2013.
6) Public Records Request to Monroe County Jail – AI Justice submitted a public records request on detention conditions on September 11, 2013.
7) Public Records Request to Wakulla County Jail – AI Justice submitted a public records request on detention conditions on September 12, 2013.