In light of President Obama’s first-full-day-in-office proclamation about transparency and FOIA, and the subsequent FOIA memorandum from Attorney General Eric Holder, we have been both hopeful and cautious when it comes to evaluating the Administration’s progress. Evaluating progress means looking at changes in numbers, and changes in experiences. One of those experiences involving a small newspaper and a story about immigration-related arrests may show the trends are encouraging.
Four years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested twenty-six people at a Bellingham, WA business, on suspicion of illegal immigration. A local newspaper, the Bellingham Herald, promptly filed a FOIA request for the names of the people arrested, only to have the request languish for over three years. Finally, in July 2010, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified the paper that its FOIA request “was being finally and officially denied.”
Upon questioning, a department spokeswoman explained that the request had been processed under the rules of the previous administration – but she volunteered that there was other information which the office could provide. Department officials eventually “provided the nationalities, ages, genders and immigration status of those who were arrested.”
All is not sunshine, however; the department did continue to withhold the names of the arrestees, citing privacy laws – but in light of our previous coverage of DHS (and specifically ICE) stories that used FOIA, it is nice to see the agency take the initiative to respond to FOIA requests with the new rules and principles at heart.
One should be careful when trying to infer larger trends, or judge policies, based on individual events. But in this case, we hope this case is reflecting a rule that many agencies are rethinking their disclosure decisions.