The openly anti-immigrant agenda of the Trump administration has led to a drastic increase in deportations of undocumented immigrants, and a looming threat of removal for Dreamers who have spent most of their lives in the U.S. Those policies promise only to further tax the country's immigration detention centers, where watchdog groups and detainees frequently report unsafe conditions. The dangers these detainees face are often revealed through careful reviews of records that document violations of immigrants' human and civil rights. Now the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE, wants permission to destroy those records, which detail immigrant abuses ranging from sexual assaults to wrongful deaths.
A press release from the ACLU indicates that ICE has submitted the new request on recordkeeping to the National Archives and Record Administration, which oversees the handling of federal records. Under the new terms, ICE would be allowed to destroy 11 types of records, "including those related to sexual assaults, solitary confinement and even deaths of people in its custody," as well as "regular detention monitoring reports, logs about the people detained in ICE facilities and communications from the public reporting detention abuses." The ACLU report indicates that ICE now wants to destroy records on sexual abuse after 20 years, while those related to solitary confinement would be removed after just three years. In the short term, NARA has greenlit this highly problematic new timescale:
NARA has provisionally approved ICE's proposal and its explanations for doing so are troubling. In cases of sexual assault and death, for example, NARA states that these records "do not document significant actions of Federal officials." It's hard to believe that the actions of a federal official are not significant in the death or sexual assault of an individual who is in federal immigration custody. NARA also posited that in cases of sexual assault, that the "information is highly sensitive and does not warrant retention."
As the ACLU points out, these records are critical to ensuring public awareness of a system "that is notorious for inhumane and unconstitutional conditions affecting hundreds of thousands of people every year."
In March, Mother Jones highlighted a report by federal inspectors who found an Orange County, California detention center provided its inhabitants with "spoiled meat and broken telephones, showers laced with mold," and held immigrants in solitary confinement for 24 hours at a time. A recent article from the Hill notes the dangers at two Georgia detention centers included "threats of force-feeding for participation in hunger strikes, sexual abuse, lack of clean drinking water, lack of adequate access to legal materials or attorneys, and labor for just $1 per day." There have been 10 deaths in detention centers since October 2016 according to the ACLU, and each case is a testament to the need for detailed documentation of how these facilities operate.
"Many of the records used in these reports and analyses would not have been made available without sustained public pressure to force ICE to maintain and divulge this information," the organization notes. "ICE shouldn't be allowed to purge important records and keep its operations out of the public eye."