Immigrants wait for their files for months and even years.
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A federal judge in San Francisco, California, on Thursday ordered the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and two of its agencies to They must provide immigrants with the information they have on their records in a timely manner, since it can be decisive for them to win their cases.
The magistrate William H. Orrick, of a district court for Northern California, found that the practice of the Immigration and Citizenship Service (USCIS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of failing to deliver immigration case files within the timeframe established by Congress under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), “it is a systemic problem and requires a comprehensive and permanent remedy.”
Under this argument, the judge ordered these two agencies respond within 60 days to pending requests from more than 40,000 immigrants who are waiting for information on their cases.
In addition Orrick ordered ICE and USCIS to comply with the legal timeline for responding to requests for case files in the future, and submit quarterly reports to the court and the plaintiffs’ lawyers to verify compliance with the deadline established by law.
The judge’s decision came in response to two class action lawsuits filed by the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Litigation Alliance (NILA) and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) in June 2019.
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The plaintiffs caution that according to FOIA, individuals must receive a determination on requests for information within a maximum period of 30 days. However, immigrants and lawyers routinely face waiting times of more than 30 days; in some cases the wait can be months, or even more than a year.
Immigrants who are submitting their applications to USCIS or who are fighting their deportations with ICE, often request their personal files from these agencies, where they can find information about previous petitions, arrests, or even deportation orders in absentia.
“Compliance with FOIA deadlines is especially important in the immigration context: it provides essential protection for claimants who require a copy of their records to obtain immigration benefits or to defend themselves or their clients against deportation.” , wrote the court.
“The lack of timely response to FOIA requests creates an information asymmetry that prevents claimants from successfully applying for immigration benefits, challenging deportation orders, or seeking release from detention,” it adds.
Trina Realmuto, executive director of NILA, who defended the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in a statement that “DHS can no longer compel non-citizens and their attorneys to face deportation proceedings, bond hearings and applications for benefits with a hand tied behind the back ”.
In this sense, Matt Adams NWIRP’s legal director, warned that “this is a great day for immigrants across the country.”