Human Rights Defense Center wanted details regarding the more than $51 million in taxpayer money used to defend Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in court. ICE denied the request, calling it "vague, overbroad, and unduly burdensome."
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), formerly known as Prison Legal News, has sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in federal court in Seattle, claiming the agency violated the law by failing to turn over records involving court settlements.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ICE’s parent agency, is also named in the complaint that alleges a violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
HRDC Executive Director Paul Wright wrote in an email that the information the group is seeking could tell them if U.S. citizens have ever successfully sued ICE for wrongfully deporting them and if the agency is held accountable for detainees who have died in custody, among other possible legal violations.
“Anything we learn about them is going to give the public a better understanding of how they do or don’t operate,” Wright said.
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The center, which advocates on behalf of people held in U.S. detention facilities, asked ICE in March to disclose any litigation filed against the agency and its employees since 2010. The request specifically asked for traffic-related cases that cost the government at least $50,000 and for other cases that cost the government $10,000 or more.
The complaint says ICE considered the request too broad and asked HRDC to narrow and clarify it. When the nonprofit declined, ICE did not process the FOIA request, determining it to be “vague, overbroad, and unduly burdensome.”
Deb Golden, an attorney for HRDC, said the information would help the nonprofit understand why records show the government has used more than $51 million in taxpayer money to defend DHS and ICE in court.
That number comes from the U.S. Treasury Judgment Fund, which keep tracks of “court judgments and Justice Department compromise settlements of actual or imminent lawsuits against the government.”
Golden said while the online judgment fund only shows the monetary amount, it does not give any context and it may not be showing the total amount spent on defending ICE.
“I have enough experience to know there are omissions in government records,” she said. “That’s the minimum amount, there could be more.”
HRDC produces criminal justice reports, news and reference books for prisoners.
The organization periodically files FOIA lawsuits against correctional facilities across the nation — lawsuits they believe “will have lasting effects on the lives of prisoners,” according to their website.
This isn’t the first time the group has sued ICE.
In 2014, when HRDC was still Prison Legal News, the organization won its suit against ICE to obtain Northwest Detention Center’s phone service contracts.
A spokeswoman for ICE said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
HRDC is represented by Seattle attorney Eric Stahl.