The Freedom of Information Act is the cornerstone of transparency for the U.S. federal government. The law, passed in 1967, allows people to access the vast majority of information maintained by the government. The law is just over 50 years old, but it is rooted in one of the founding principles of our democracy, that governments derive powers from the consent of the governed.
FOIA is a vital tool for understanding how our federal government works. It gives people the right to obtain documents and other records the government has compiled, with some exceptions. Transparency is a necessary element of a democracy.
Access to public records on national, state and local levels will be vital to the in-depth and investigative reporting we do at El Paso Matters. We’ll aggressively pursue public records as part of our reporting to help our community understand how their governments are operating.
When the government fails to produce records requested under the act, Americans can turn to the courts for help. That’s what I did in October as the federal government repeatedly ignored five requests for information I filed with the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services since June 2018.
Suing the government is never an easy decision, especially for an individual (I’m bearing the cost of the lawsuit personally, not El Paso Matters.) But after consulting with El Paso attorneys Lynn Coyle and Chris Benoit, I decided to proceed with the lawsuit because it appeared to be the only way to obtain documents that explain how the government implemented a number of policies that have affected our region, such as metering at ports of entry and mass detention of migrant children at Tornillo and other locations.
On Jan. 17, the government gave U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama the outlines of a settlement that calls for them to produce the requested documents.
In their filing outlining the settlement, the government said “ICE, CBP and HHS all admit that as of October 1, 2019, the date Plaintiff filed the instant suit, they had not produced any responsive records to Plaintiff’s request.” The settlement plan calls for the government to produce the requested records by March 30, with some extension possible if the number of documents are voluminous.
I already received one batch of documents from ICE, which involve a request I made last year to interview two detained hunger strikers in El Paso. As with many FOIA responses, the documents are heavily redacted.
In providing documents, ICE redacted my name in emails I sent making the interview requests. To justify the redaction, ICE said it was protecting my privacy. I guess I should be grateful that my government is protecting me from intruding on my own privacy. (With the help of my lawyers, I’m challenging some of the redactions.)
Even with the proposed agreement, it’s possible the government and I may disagree over the production of some records. But I’m glad to see the signs of progress.
Americans shouldn’t have to sue their own government for public records. But increasingly, that’s a necessity. And that’s a shame.