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Advocacy Groups Sue Biden Admin. to Force Release of Trump-Era Family Immigration Detention Records

"Children should be able to grow up with their families, friends, and communities—not be detained based solely on their immigration status."

Migrants are gathered inside the fence of a makeshift detention center in El Paso, Texas on Wed. March 27, 2019. (Photo by Sergio Flores for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Migrant families are held by U.S. immigration authorites in an outdoor makeshift detention center in El Paso, Texas on March 27, 2019. (Photo: Sergio Flores/Washington Post via Getty Images)

A coalition of immigrant and human rights advocacy groups on Thursday sued the Biden administration in a bid to force the disclosure of records related to the U.S. government's failure to release detained immigrant families together. 

"Nothing is stopping ICE from freeing families together, but it has chosen again and again to make it as difficult as possible to release children with their parents so they can be together and safe."
—Denise Bell,
Amnesty International

The lawsuit (pdf), filed against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), follows an August 2020 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the coalition seeking documents regarding the imprisonment of migrant families under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy and the administration's failure to release detained children. No such records were provided. 

"Since DHS and ICE have not responded to plaintiffs' FOIA request... plaintiffs are treating the non-response as the functional equivalent of a denial," the lawsuit states. "DHS and ICE's withholding of the records violates FOIA and DHS's FOIA regulations. Plaintiffs have provided DHS and ICE with more than adequate time to respond to their FOIA request and administrative appeal, and therefore now seek judicial review of DHS's and ICE's failure to release any records in response to plaintiffs' FOIA request."

The plaintiffs said that once obtained, they will share the requested information "with interested nonprofit organizations, religious entities, and U.S. policy makers, with the goal of increasing public understanding of the issues addressed in the requested documents and encouraging the formulation of proposals for consistent and fair parole and credible fear determinations and the prompt release of parents with their children."

Under "zero tolerance," thousands of migrants were imprisoned in concentration camps and thousands of children were forcibly seized from their parents—with hundreds still waiting to be reunited. 

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of asylum-seekers were unlawfully denied entry into the U.S. and forced to live in tent encampments in Mexico without access to adequate medical care, shelter, or legal aid. Separately, some babies and young children born in the United States—and thus U.S. citizens under the 14th Amendment—were also deported along with their mothers.

"Children should be able to grow up with their families, friends, and communities—not be detained based solely on their immigration status," Denise Bell, a migrant rights researcher at Amnesty International, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "Nothing is stopping ICE from freeing families together, but it has chosen again and again to make it as difficult as possible to release children with their parents so they can be together and safe."

Directing attorney Monica Eav Glicken, on behalf of the immigration unit at the Public Law Center—another plaintiff in the case—added that the organization is "extremely concerned about DHS's lack of transparency about its detention of children and their parents who arrive at our borders seeking protection under our asylum laws."

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"Unfortunately, this complaint is necessary in order to hold DHS accountable for its unlawful, traumatizing, and inhumane practices," she said. 

Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior counsel at the children's rights division at case plaintiff Human Rights Watch, cited President Joe Biden's campaign pledge to "reassert America's commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees" in a Wednesday op-ed urging the new administration to do more to reverse its predecessor's human rights abuses. 

"That means a dramatic shift of institutional culture in the immigration enforcement agencies," wrote Garcia Bochenek. "This can't happen without significant shifts in funding, consistent messaging from senior officials, clear and binding standards, and effective accountability mechanisms to address abuses to combat the widespread impunity that has plagued both agencies."

"This work won't always be easy, as the initial legal setbacks to Biden's pause on deportations show," he wrote, adding that the president "and administration officials should stay the course and proceed at speed. Every day of delay means more children are hurt."

On Wednesday, migrant rights advocates expressed disappointment after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced the administration would continue—at least for now—the Trump-era policy of turning away lawful asylum-seekers at the southern border. 

"Due to the [coronavirus] pandemic and the fact that we have not had the time as an administration to put in place a humane, comprehensive process for processing individuals who are coming to the border, now is not the time to come," said Psaki, who added that "the vast majority of people will be turned away."

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