Is the Government Deleting Immigration Court Records?

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Photo by teachingsagittarian via Flickr

Over one million records of U.S. immigration cases are missing from the database held by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), and the agency appears unwilling to explain what happened, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) charged Thursday.

TRACTRAC, a nonprofit data-crunching group established at Syracuse University in 1989, said the agency’s failure to address the problem despite repeated requests has persuaded it to make a rare public complaint “about the lack of commitment within the agency to responsible data management.”

TRAC charged that EOIR did not respond to its discovery of “gross irregularities” in the agency’s recent data releases.

“It is deeply troubling that rather than working cooperatively with TRAC to clear up the reasons for these unexplained disappearances, the agency has decided to dig in its heels and insist the public is not entitled to have answers to why records are missing from the data EOIR releases to the public,” TRAC said.

The EOIR, which operates under the Department of Justice, oversees the U.S. immigration court system. In an analysis published earlier this month, TRAC found that the backlog of immigration court cases had nearly doubled since the start of the Trump administration to over 1 million—but it also reported that the available data appeared incomplete.

EOIRTRAC, administered by co-directors David Burnham and Susan B. Long, is regarded as one of the nation’s foremost nonpartisan sources of federal data analysis. It obtains much of its information through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The group said the missing-record problem predated the current administration, but has been exacerbated under the present government.

A major ruling by the Supreme Court in 2003 on detention practices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency turned out to be based on incorrect data, said the group—and produced an apology by then-acting Solicitor General Ian Heath Gershengorn on Aug. 26, 2016.

“The EOIR did not uncover the data irregularities on its own,” said TRAC. “The EOIR’s mistakes were only recognized because the public obtained the underlying data through a (FOIA) request and identified the relevant discrepancies.”

According to TRAC, at least some of the missing data may have been purposefully deleted.

It said that more than 1,500 applications for immigration relief which had been noted in the August 2019 official agency release disappeared in the following month’s release.

“We further found that 896,906 applications for relief which were present in the September 2018 release from a year ago were missing from the September 2019 files we received,” TRAC said.

“This discrepancy of nearly a million records largely occurred because the EOIR appears to have started silently but systematically deleting records.”

The EOIR database is used to identify juveniles, recently arrived families seeking asylum, and immigrants required to remain in Mexico under the Migration Protection Protocols, and other special cases.

“When the records in the September 2019 release TRAC received were matched with those from the September 2018 release a year earlier, the problems we uncovered multiplied,” TRAC said.

“It was clear that the problem of missing records grew by leaps and bounds with the passage of time.”

Moreover, some of the existing data was “garbled” and impossible to decipher because of agency mismanagement of the records, TRAC said.

The complete TRAC statement on the issue is available here.

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