ACLU Blasts Attorney General's Move to Subvert Court Order Opening Records of Immigration Detainees

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
April 18, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–Attorney General Ashcroft today issued a regulation forbidding non-federal authorities from releasing information about immigration detainees held in state and local facilities, an act the American Civil Liberties Union said was the latest Justice Department attempt to keep its actions shrouded in secrecy.

“With this order, the Justice Department is seeking to codify the right to secretly arrest and detain anyone they want in open defiance of the courts,” said Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey.

The Justice Department regulation apparently seeks to negate a March 27 New Jersey state court ruling that grants the ACLU access to records of INS detainees held in jails in Hudson and Passaic counties. In issuing the ruling — the first in the nation concerning detainees held since September 11– New Jersey Superior Court Judge Arthur D’Italia called secret arrests “odious to a democracy.”

An overwhelming majority of INS detainees are held in state and local jails. The ACLU of New Jersey had sought information on the detainees under a state law that stipulates that the names and the dates of entry of all inmates in county jails, without exception, “shall be open to public inspection.” A similar national ACLU lawsuit, filed in Washington on behalf of detainees nationwide, was made pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The court had given the Department of Justice, which had intervened in the state case, ten days to appeal the ruling. In addition to issuing the interim order, which was signed by INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar, the government today asked for an extension of that stay.

“In a democratic society, the government cannot simply round up and detain people in secret for months at a time,” said Lee Gelernt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The Attorney General’s order is an attempt to run state law and keep the American public in the dark about our country’s response to the events of Sept. 11.”

The order, which forbids “the release of the identity or other information relating to [INS] detainees by non-federal institutions,” does not directly affect ongoing ACLU federal court lawsuits in New Jersey and Michigan seeking to open INS deportation hearings, or a federal ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking information on detainees held around the country.

In the Michigan closed hearing case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati today denied the government’s request to prevent the release of transcripts of prior deportation hearings and to prevent the press and public from attending future hearings in the case of Rabih Haddad. The appeals court said there was a “slim likelihood” that the government would prevail in an appeal of the ruling and that it was “unlikely” that the government would suffer “irreparable harm” by complying with the order pending an appeal.

In another rebuke to Attorney General Ashcroft’s attempt to assume unnecessary new powers, a federal judge yesterday rejected Ashcroft’s attempt to overturn an Oregon voter initiative on assisted suicide. “To allow an attorney general…to determine the legitimacy of a particular practice without a specific congressional grant of such authority would be unprecedented and extraordinary,” said U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Jones.

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