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Watchdog Files Lawsuit Against ICE and Homeland Security Over Pandemic Response

A government watchdog sued the Trump administration in federal court on Thursday demanding records related to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The agency has previously stonewalled the release of such records in response to prior requests.

Transparency and anti-corruption-focused nonprofit American Oversight filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after originally filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in early May seeking “any formal written or emergency grievances filed at six different [internment] facilities since March 1, 2020″ as well as [a]ny documents containing final adjudications, or written responses, made by any ICE personnel or contractor concerning any formal written grievances or emergency grievances.”

The group also requested a detailed “grievance log” beginning March 1, 2020 for the internment facilities in question. To wit: California’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, New York’s Buffalo Federal Detention Facility, Louisiana’s Alexandria Staging Facility, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center, New Jersey’s Elizabeth Contract Detention Center, and Florida’s Krome Service Processing Center.

“In the last week, the number of positive cases at one ICE facility in Arizona more than quintupled, and asylum-seeking migrants at another ICE facility in the currently hard-hit state have said they were forced to clean the center as it experienced its own outbreak,” the group said in a press release announcing the litigation.

The deadly contagion “has been rapidly spreading through jails and detention centers, where people remain particularly vulnerable to the disease’s transmission thanks to crowded conditions and poor access to medical care,” the group’s press release noted–casting their lawsuit as an effort to bring attention to the “surge” in COVID-19 cases that have rocked federal detention facilities in recent weeks and months.

Under federal law, all administrative agencies must respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days unless “unusual circumstances” apply. In the event of such circumstances, an agency is granted an additional 10 business days to complete with a request.

According to the lawsuit, American Oversight originally filed their document request on May 1 and have yet to even hear back from ICE. If true, this would qualify as a violation of the federal timelines.

“American Oversight has not received any communication from ICE regarding the request,” the filing alleges. “To American Oversight’s knowledge, ICE has not acknowledged receipt of American Oversight’s FOIA request or assigned it a tracking number.”

All processed FOIA requests are assigned a tracking number. The progress of any given request can then be followed online here.

A separate section of the nation’s leading government transparency statute provides that defendants who have been ignored or otherwise frustrated by government agencies can institute legal action to force such recalcitrant agencies into compliance.

“Through [ICE’s] failure to make determinations as to American Oversight’s FOIA request within the time period required by law, American Oversight has constructively exhausted its administrative remedies and seeks immediate judicial review,” the lawsuit continues.

The group is seeking a court order forcing ICE and DHS to comply with the original FOIA request as well as an injunction that would bar the defendants from continuing to withhold any such responsive records and attorneys’ fees.

[image via John Moore/Getty Images]

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