Newly Released Emails Reveal Pattern of Disclosures to Advance an Anti-Immigration Narrative

Washington, D.C. — Today, Democracy Forward asked the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate whether DHS officials within the Office of Public Affairs violated the Privacy Act and DHS policy by leaking details about the immigration status of individuals accused of crimes to anti-immigrant media outlets to promote the Trump administration’s false and racist narrative that immigrants are dangerous criminals. Evidence obtained through a Democracy Forward Freedom of Information Act investigation reveals a troubling and potentially unlawful pattern of disclosure.

“If DHS is illegally sharing protected information with media outlets as part of a deliberate attempt to further an anti-immigrant narrative, that would be an egregious misuse of power,” said Democracy Forward Legal Policy Director Aman George. “DHS is a national security agency, not the Breitbart research team.”

In one instance, Fox News reporter Alex Pappas emailed a DHS official touting a Fox story about an Iraqi man accused of shooting a police officer. The DHS official was quick to chide Pappas for not emphasizing to the public that the man was a refugee. “The news here,” the official wrote, “is that he is a refugee. It is not mentioned. That is new.” The Fox News story was soon updated to include a lengthy disclosure from DHS about the man’s immigration and criminal history, including his refugee status.

In another, John Binder at Breitbart contacted DHS to inquire whether, as he apparently suspected, a man accused of sexually abusing a child may have been living in the country unlawfully. In a seeming violation of longstanding privacy protections, then-DHS Deputy Press Secretary Katie Miller (née Waldman) replied: “Off the record – is a USC [U.S. citizen].”

In yet another instance, a DHS official reached out to reporters to share information about an individual’s immigration status in the event that the reporters decided to write about the individual.

In sharing this information, DHS officials may have violated the Privacy Act of 1974 — passed in the aftermath of Watergate to regulate federal agencies’ use and dissemination of personal information. DHS’s own regulations also forbid all disclosure of refugees’ personally identifiable information and the disclosure of other individuals’ information without adequately balancing the public’s right to know about the agency’s law enforcement practices against an individual’s right to privacy.

Democracy Forward is actively investigating a broader pattern of improper communications between Trump administration officials, Fox News, and similar media outlets. To date, these investigations have exposed a cozy relationship between Fox Business and Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury Department, the promise of an “easy interview” for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and more.

The letter to the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security was sent on May 11, 2020.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

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