DOJ Blows Redaction Effort; Exposes Immigration Judges Accused Of Misconduct

from the REFRESH-TO-REMOVE-REDACTION dept

Some more inadvertent transparency has resulted from a FOIA lawsuit. Two years ago, the DOJ released a bunch of heavily-redacted documents containing complaints about immigration judges to the Public Citizen Litigation Group and the American Immigration Council. Withheld at the time — or so the DOJ thought — were the names of the judges named in the complaints.

But that’s all history now. Even though the DOJ and the American Immigration Council are still litigating over the legality of redacting the judges’ names, those arguments have been rendered irrelevant. As Betsy Woodruff of The Daily Beast reports, additional research work by an immigration lawyer has uncovered the judges’ supposedly redacted names.

A few days before Inauguration Day, meanwhile, an immigration attorney named Bryan Johnson was combing through that document trove in search of any tidbits that could help him. Johnson, of the Long Island, New York, law firm Amoachi & Johnson PLLC, represents children who come to the United States without legal authorization, fleeing drug violence in Central America. For these clients, who seek refugee status from some of the most violent parts of the world, deportation can be a death sentence.

Johnson told The Daily Beast that as he was going through those documents, he switched from one document-viewing software program to another, in hopes of making it easier to scroll through.

But when he made the switch, something happened that he hadn’t expected: The redactions vanished.

Johnson discovered that all of the redactions — which included the personal information of immigrants seeking residency — weren’t truly redacted. They were only hidden. Considering the wealth of personal info in the documents, Johnson hasn’t posted unredacted copies of the FOIA’ed complaints. Instead, he’s linked as many of the complaints to the now-named judges as possible.

The Executive Office of Immigration Review — from where the redaction failure stems — claims Johnson’s information is incorrect. While he does possess documents that aren’t actually redacted, a spokesperson claims his key matching judges to complaints is inaccurate. But that’s as far as the comment goes. No examples of specific inaccuracy have been cited and the EOIR seems content to make it appear as though all of Johnson’s work is inherently faulty.

Even if the key is off, the complaints contained in the documents are ugly. Judges who hold people’s future in their hands seem to treat the very secretive courts as their fiefdoms.

In complaint number 468, ICE chief counsel advised ACIJ Larry Dean that an IJ (immigration judge) was systematically depriving detained immigrants of procedural due process rights–specifically, the IJ was observed to have been ordering immigrants removed and then subsequently using that removal order to deny immigrants’ right to a bond determination.

And more:

One complainant alleges that an immigration judge gave special leniency to the clients of another immigration attorney. In some complaints, immigrants allege that judges laughed at them, mocked them, and didn’t take seriously their pleas for asylum.

[…]

Documents showed multiple allegations of that judge rudely yelling at DHS attorneys.

The National Association of Immigration Judges has released its own statement, highlighting the effed-up conditions of their particularly unusual workplace. In addition to being understaffed and having a backlog of a half-million cases to work through, the system used to handle complaints about judges is completely opaque — even to the judges being disciplined.

Most people, lawyers included, fail to understand that the position of Immigration Judges is a legal anomaly. The law under which we serve describes us as attorneys appointed to serve as judges. We are called judges and held to standards of conduct that apply to judges, yet IJs are considered attorneys by the U.S. Department of Justice. This classification means we are subjected to the orders of supervisors, and like any employee, are at risk of discipline for failure to follow the instructions of our supervisors. Immigration Judges are viewed by DOJ as low level employees…

What is even worse is the star chamber manner in which Immigration Judge discipline is meted out. Not infrequently, Immigration Judges have been investigated and discipline proposed without even advising the Judge that a complaint has been filed, let alone asking the Judge to provide his or her side of the story.

Understandably, these judges aren’t happy that complaints have been linked to their mistakenly-unredacted names. This has led to talk of a possible lawsuit against the DOJ for doing an inadequate job of protecting the judges’ privacy.

On the other hand, government agencies are well-known for doing everything they can to ensure the public knows as little as possible about misconduct or illegal activity committed by government employees. No matter how egregious the violation, the names are withheld for as long as possible — in some cases indefinitely. Meanwhile, the merest accusation of illegal activity committed by a taxpayer tends to result in the release of that person’s name in full — along with any background info that can be dredged up. If these judges are worried about their reputations as the result of unsubstantiated allegations… well, hey, welcome to the world the rest of us live in.

But underlying all of this is an error that undoes months of litigation and thousands of taxpayer dollars. The government — at least until recently — has been arguing this information should be withheld. Right or wrong, the information hasn’t been, but constituents are still on the hook for the costs of this particularly futile legal battle.

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Comments on “DOJ Blows Redaction Effort; Exposes Immigration Judges Accused Of Misconduct”

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17 Comments
Thad (user link) says:

And here I was just today reading a Slashdot thread ( https://tech.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=10172263&cid=53749219 ) where somebody noted graphic designers’ failure to understand why using images of text instead of actual text was killing their SEO.

The difference between what you see on the screen and what data the computer has access to is one of those things that’s so fundamental, so obvious, and yet so completely unknown to the vast majority of people, even people who use computers all the time, every day.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Why?

Are immigration courts actually full courts of law as most people would think of as a court of law? Operating under the various rules of procedure we hear about courts operating under?

Maybe “Immigration Court” is a label and not an actual statement that they are a what most would consider a court. Which is probably why they aren’t article 3 judges, because they are not a body that requires judges.

Anon says:

Ah, Governments...

How many decades (!!!) of FOIA requests for government documents, and the government still hasn’t figured out that black highlight in Word/Adobe/whatever – does not actually erase the data behind it? Weren’t we seeing “peek behind the overlay” news stories before 2000?

Two explanations come to mind – they are stupid, or they don’t care. Or as Dibert’s Pointy Haired Boss would say “why can’t it be both?”

Anonymous Coward says:

“government agencies are well-known for doing everything they can to ensure the public knows as little as possible about misconduct or illegal activity committed by government employees.”

I imagine this will not be addresses specifically by the present administration. Corruption will most likely become worse which the present administration will proclaim to be a good thing because that is how capitalism works.

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