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ICE Wants To Start Destroying Records Related To Deaths And Sexual Assaults In Immigrant Detention

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Detainees inside Adelanto Detention Center (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
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As the Trump administration ramps up its immigrant detention and deportation machine, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is trying to get permission to begin routinely destroying records related to its detention operations. More specifically, ICE has asked the National Archives and Record Administration to approve a new timetable for the destruction and retention of records that would allow records relating to solitary confinement to be destroyed after three years, and records relating to detainee deaths to be destroyed after 20 years.

Under the proposed timetable, which has already been granted preliminary approval by NARA, the agency would have "permission to begin routinely destroying 11 kinds of records, including those related to sexual assaults, solitary confinement and even deaths of people in its custody," according to an ACLU release. ICE has proposed a number of timelines for when these records could be destroyed "ranging from 20 years for sexual assault and death records to three years for reports about solitary confinement," according to the ACLU.

“This is routine, government record maintenance as prescribed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which is the ultimate arbiter of how our records are managed," ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett told LAist in an email.

Bennett told LAist that "there were no timetables [for record destruction or retention] in place previously since ICE has only existed as an agency since 2003." She also said that the agency has been working with NARA to establish timetables for "how to manage our records and come into alignment with federal records management laws and regulations."

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"We expect that they're moving toward an increase in the immigrant detention system," Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told LAist. In Lopez's view, the agency's request is far from routine maintenance, and would instead hinder access to "pretty important documents."

"This may seem like a run-of-the-mill government request for record-keeping efficiency. It isn’t," the ACLU explained in their release. "An entire paper trail for a system rife with human rights and constitutional abuses is at stake." As noted at Splinter, the agency's request "also comes during an era when ICE has abruptly stopped sharing data with researchers and limited information available to attorneys."

Although 20 years may seem like a long time, it's a relative drop in the historical bucket. The idea that ICE, which has been in existence for 14 years, could begin destroying records about detainee deaths and sexual assaults from the agency's first days of operation a mere six years from now is troubling to watchdog groups.

"When you look at our immigration detention system as a whole, it was originally really ramped up in the early '80s, so that was over 30 years ago. Twenty years ago, that was right around the time of the 1996 laws that were passed under President Bill Clinton and basically doubled immigrant detention overnight," Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-founder of immigrant detention watchdog group CIVIC, told LAist, expanding on what a 20-year timeline looks like in the context of recent American immigration history.

"Without information about the pattern of abuse that's taking place over the last few decades, it's going to be harder for us to really show that this is a system that's using our tax dollars to perpetrate human and civil rights abuses," she continued.

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Fialho's organization authored a report earlier this year documenting the rampant sexual assault and harassment claims at immigrant detention centers. As indicated in the report, the government also has little protocol in place for investigating or preventing those claims, which makes the destruction of records related to them especially troublesome.

"I can't help but feel that this move on ICE's part is a direct response to a lot of the complaints around abuse that they've been receiving recently in the media," Fialho said.

In their preliminary approval of ICE's requested timetable for record retention and destruction, the National Archives justified the eventual destruction of records relating to both detainee sexual assault and detainee deaths on the grounds that neither "document significant actions of Federal officials." The preliminary report also justified the destruction of records relating to detainee deaths after a 20-year period on the grounds that they have "little or no research value."

"The M.O. of the immigration detention system as a whole is isolating people from information," Fialho told LAist in April.

Ten people have already died in ICE custody this fiscal year (the fiscal year began in October 2016 and ends on September 30). Since Trump took office, three detainees have died at the Adelanto Detention Facility alone, which is located in the high desert about 90 miles from Los Angeles. Adelanto, which houses just shy of 2,000 people, is California's largest immigrant detention facility.

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"ICE may try to destroy the evidence of its wrongdoing, but we will not allow them to operate with impunity between closed doors," Fialho said.

Splinter reports that NARA is currently accepting public comment on ICE's request before they make a final decision, and that the public comment period will close on September 7. If you would like to comment, you can do so by emailing NARA here (make sure to indicate that you are commenting in regard to schedule item #DAA-0567-2015-0013).

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