The National Archives can’t allow ICE to destroy records about sexual assault and detainee deaths, a federal judge ruled

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The Immigration and Customs Enforcement seal at ICE headquarters in Washington, DC.

  • A judge ruled that ICE and NARA must maintain records of detainee deaths and sexual assault.
  • Three watchdog groups sued NARA after it approved ICE’s plan to destroy records.
  • The organizations won arguing that records had a historical value for research.
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A federal judge on Friday ruled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the National Archives and Records Administration must preserve records relating to sexual assault, abuse, and detainee deaths because of their “research” value.

The legal publication Law & Crime first reported the court’s ruling Friday. The ruling, from the Obama-appointed Judge Amit P. Mehta, offered his analysis of the Federal Records Act.

Under the act, federal agencies must properly maintain records, but they can dispose of records that have only a “temporary value” should they no longer be needed for the “transaction of its current business and that do not appear to have sufficient administrative, legal, research, or other value to warrant their further preservation.”

The suit was brought on by a group of plaintiffs that include Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the American Historical Association, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, according to the report.

The three groups sued NARA after it approved ICE’s plan to destroy records for which it no longer had a “business use,” arguing the plan failed to consider the “research value” of such documents.

“The court finds that, as to all but the Detainee Escape Reports, NARA’s approval of the schedule was arbitrary and capricious on the grounds that NARA failed to evaluate the research value of the ICE records and that NARA failed to address significant and relevant public comments,” Mehta wrote in his 21-page opinion.

Noah Bookbinder, the president of CREW, called the decision “an incredible ruling for transparency” in a statement.

“To destroy records revealing abuse, rights violations, and even deaths in detention would further obscure a system already severely lacking in oversight and transparency,” he said. “There have been too many abuses documented in our immigration detention system, but the country cannot fix these problems without knowing what has happened.”

The ruling pertains to records that involve sexual abuse and assault, death review files, detention monitoring reports, detainee escape reports, detainee segregation files, and Detention Information Reporting Line records, according to Law & Crime.

Mehta sided with the plaintiffs on all cases except for the Detainee Escape Reports, which it said could be discarded because the plaintiffs had not made the case that such records were of “significant research value,” he said.

“The court might agree with NARA were it not for the numerous comments touting the current and anticipated future research value of the records and criticizing the agency for not properly measuring their true value,” Mehta wrote.

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Deportations are down nearly 60% since Trump’s final months in office

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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) special agent preparing to arrest alleged immigration violators at Fresh Mark in Salem, Ohio, June 19, 2018.

  • ICE arrests have dropped 60% since President Joe Biden took office, The Washington Post reported.
  • Deportations have fallen by nearly the same amount.
  • In February, ICE arrested around 2,500 people, down from an average of 6,500 per month last fall.
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Arrests of undocumented immigrants plunged by more than 60% in February compared to the average in the final weeks of the Trump administration, according to data reviewed by The Washington Post. Deportations have fallen by roughly amount, the paper reported.

President Joe Biden came into office promising to halt most deportations in his first 100 days. But that plan was put on hold when a US judge, appointed by his predecessor and responding to a lawsuit by Texas’ Republican attorney general, ruled that the moratorium violated federal law.

The Biden administration has, in lieu of a total pause, issued guidance to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that strictly limits the conditions under which someone may be removed from the country. Agents may no longer target someone as a criminal, eligible for expulsion, over a nonviolent drug offense, for example.

“They’ve abolished ICE without abolishing ICE,” one anonymous agency official complained to The Post last month.

The impact has been stark. On average, The Post reported, ICE arrested almost 6,800 people per month from October to December 2020.

In February, Biden’s first full month in office, that number fell to less than 2,500. The US also deported about 2,600 people, down from more than 5,600 the month before.

But those figures do not tell the full story: The current administration is unlikely to satisfy either immigration activists or hard-liners.

While the new administration has started accepting unaccompanied minors who cross the border – a record 3,200 were in Border Patrol custody as of this week – it continues to expel others in the name of public health, upholding a Trump-era rule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January, over 62,000 people were subject to such “Title 14” expulsions after crossing the border, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

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