Democracy Forward Called For Investigation in May 2020 After Obtaining Emails That Revealed Troubling Pattern of Disclosures by DHS Officials

In New Letter, DHS Civil Rights Office Says It’s “Working to Develop Training” to Prevent Potential Privacy and Civil Rights Violations in the Future

Washington, D.C. — The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties responded to Democracy Forward’s May 2020 request for an investigation into whether Trump appointees at the Department’s Office of Public Affairs violated the Privacy Act and DHS policy by leaking details about the immigration status of individuals accused of crimes.

Records obtained by Democracy Forward revealed that DHS officials routinely leaked sensitive information about individuals’ immigration status to right-wing media outlets in order to promote the Trump administration’s false and racist narrative that immigrants are dangerous criminals.

In its letter, DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties:

  • Said the issues raised by Democracy Forward “are concerning and indicate possible privacy and civil rights violations.”
  • Stated that “[t]o proactively address these issues,” it is “working to develop training to enhance DHS employees’ awareness of privacy and civil rights protections.”
  • Explained that the individuals cited in the investigatory request “are no longer employees of the Department.”

In response, Democracy Forward Counsel and Legal Policy Director Aman George issued the following statement:

Trump appointees at the Department of Homeland Security committed an egregious abuse by leaking individuals’ immigration status to right-wing outlets to advance Trump’s anti-immigrant message.

Fortunately, these officials are now far from the levers of government power, and we appreciate that the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is working to curb these practices in the future.

Background

As part of its long-running investigation into improper communications between Trump administration officials and conservative media, Democracy Forward obtained emails that revealed a troubling and potentially unlawful pattern of disclosures by DHS officials of private individuals’ immigration status.

Here are a few examples:

  • A DHS official chided Fox News reporter Alex Pappas for not emphasizing to the public that an Iraqi man Pappas had written about — and who was accused of shooting a police officer — was, in fact, 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 then updated to include a lengthy disclosure from DHS about the man’s immigration and criminal history, including his refugee status.
  • DHS’s then-Deputy Press Secretary Katie Miller (née Waldman) disclosed that a man accused of sexually abusing a child was a U.S. citizen after Breitbart’s John Binder had inquired about his immigration status. Miller wrote: “Off the record – is a USC [U.S. citizen].”
  • 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 well have violated the Privacy Act of 1974, which regulates federal agencies’ use and dissemination of personal information. The officials may have also violated DHS policies forbidding disclosure of refugees’ personally identifiable information and disclosure of any personally identifiable information without adequately balancing the public’s right to know about DHS’s practices against an individual’s right to privacy.

Democracy Forward asked the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate the matter on May 11, 2020.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that represents organizations, individuals, and municipalities in impact litigation to keep corruption out of policymaking.

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