On November 3rd, OpenTheGovernment.org hosted immigrant rights’ advocates, open government experts, and others for a discussion on improving transparency and oversight in the U.S. immigration detention system. Participants shared their experiences challenging government secrecy around immigration detention, as well as their expertise on FOIA and other mechanisms they have used to push for government transparency and accountability.
Three experts led the discussion: Mary Small, Policy Director at Detention Watch Network; Antonio Ginatta, Advocacy Director for the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch; and Elizabeth Hempowicz, Policy Counsel at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Small started off the conversation with an overview of the many transparency issues with the immigration detention system, including the opaque web of detention contracting, which includes direct contracts between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and private companies, contracts between ICE and state and local governments, and sub-contracting between state and local governments and private companies. Detention Watch Network is engaged in ongoing litigation to make these contracts open to the public – litigation in which Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) and GEO Group have intervened to block the release of information to the public. Small also discussed the poor oversight of detention facilities, exacerbated by the fact that facilities are given advance notice of federal inspections.
Antonio Ginatta continued by explaining the ways the private contracting mechanism used by ICE enables the agency to refuse to disclose information and to avoid reforms. When advocates call for improved conditions in the facilities, for example, ICE officials will often claim that their hands are tied by the contract negotiation process. As the public currently doesn’t have access to information about the contracts, assessing and challenging these claims is difficult. Ginatta also discussed issues with data collection and reporting from detention facilities, citing responses to FOIA requests where ICE claims detention centers simply aren’t reporting data to the federal government.
Elizabeth Hempowicz shared POGO’s findings on the lack of oversight and transparency in federal contracting of private as well as government facilities, and described the need for more accountability in all levels of the detention system. Hempowicz described POGO’s history working to enhance oversight for the defense industry, and highlighted some of the parallels - with regards to obstacles to transparency and effective oversight - between the military industrial complex and the prison industry complex.
The discussion then broadened to include the rest of the attendees, who shared their own experiences and asked questions of the speakers. Sue Long of the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which collects and analyzes data on the immigration court system, explained the many obstacles to obtaining information on immigration through FOIA, including ICE’s refusal to conduct full searches of databases in response to requests and DHS’ claims that releasing data would make its systems vulnerable to cyber attacks.
POGO journalist Adam Zagorin brought up the reports that private prison companies like CCA are required to prepare for the federal government, on violent incidents and safety standards. In the past, CCA has fought to hide these reports from public release by using FOIA’s attorney-client privilege exemption – a defense that Zagorin says would likely not stand up in court. This year, CCA and Geo Group shareholders sued the companies for failing to disclose inadequate safety standards.
The conversation also touched on protections for whistleblowers, attacks on journalists reporting about poor conditions at detention centers, the need for standardized definitions in data reporting, and other issues. Attendees from the openness community offered advice on FOIA resources, including FOIA Wiki, for those seeking information about the immigration system.
The speakers also discussed DHS’ current review of its contracting with private prison companies, and whether that process offers any opportunities for reform and greater transparency in the detention system. Some interest also was expressed in exploring the possibility of getting access to the reports these companies are required to provide to the DOJ Bureau of Prisons.
Participants identified a number of areas on which to collaborate moving forward; to share FOIA expertise, strategize on improving DHS oversight of the detention system, and strengthen advocacy efforts. The town hall provided an important first step toward better coordination around the shared goal of a more open and accountable immigration detention system.