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ACLU Files Suit on Behalf of Community Group to Obtain Records on Enforcement of Immigration Laws

Posted: February 24, 2014|Category: Immigration Category: Open Government

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The ACLU of Rhode Island has today filed an open records lawsuit on behalf of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association (ONA) in an effort to obtain documents that the group wants to share with the community relating to the state’s cooperation with federal immigration officials. The lawsuit, against the RI Department of Corrections and the RI State Police, seeks a court order waiving the significant fees the agencies want to charge ONA before turning over the requested records.

ONA filed open records requests with those agencies and with five police departments last year, seeking a wide range of information regarding enforcement of so-called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “holds” that facilitate the transfer of detainees from law enforcement to ICE custody. The five police departments agreed to waive all search and copying fees and provided ONA the documents at no cost. However, the DOC sought an estimated $593 for retrieving and copying the records, and the State Police demanded a pre-payment of $1,500 before searching for the documents.

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Kathleen Connell and Christopher Gerlica, argues that the two agencies’ “refusal to waive the fee and their costly demands actually denies public access to the documents and is counter to the goals and objectives of the Access to Public Records Act.”

ONA plans to use the information to help educate the public and governmental agencies about the consequences of ICE “holds,” and to advocate ending the practice by compiling a report of the data and sharing it with policy-makers. The open records law authorizes courts to waive fees when the information requested “is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government,” and the suit argues that ONA’s request meets that standard.

Eduardo Sandoval from ONA said today: “It is in everyone's interest to understand how and to what extent state agencies collaborate with ICE for the purpose of detaining and deporting our family, friends, and neighbors. This is information that Rhode Islanders need to know.” ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown stated: “The right to access public records means little if agencies can put them beyond the financial reach of most requesters. Fulfilling requests like this should be part of a public body’s core mission, not a money-making venture. We are hopeful that a court will require the disclosure of these important documents without cost.” ACLU attorney Connell added: “The public’s right to access to public records is recognized in law as principle of utmost importance in a free society. When the cost of accessing public records is prohibitive, we fail to recognize that principle. Five police departments waived any costs and supplied ONA with the information requested. We are asking the same from the Department of Corrections and State Police.”

Earlier this month, ruling in another ACLU lawsuit and confirming the important public interest in this matter, a federal judge held that the DOC could potentially be held liable for holding individuals at the ACI based on ICE requests without independently determining if there was probable cause to do so.

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