Photo via U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement/Flickr

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is taking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to federal court over the agency’s alleged lack of transparency about its immigration-enforcement partnership with Harford County.

The nonprofit civil rights group this morning filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, arguing the agency has violated the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to share data about 105 immigrants who the Harford County Sheriff’s Office flagged for “further screening” and potential deportation by ICE.

The two agencies have been in cahoots since October 2016 under the 287(g) program, in which ICE trains law enforcement officers to screen inmates and arrestees for immigration status. Harford County’s program entails screening of inmates at the detention center in Bel Air. Two other Maryland counties, Anne Arundel and Frederick, also partake in 287(g).

The ACLU had asked for data on the 105 immigrants’ race or ethnicity, age, charges, criminal history and more in late November 2017. Two days earlier, the sheriff’s office announced it had passed their names on to ICE, recommended 44 of them as a “priority for removal” and, overall, dubbed the program “hugely successful.” The sheriff’s office had cited examples of the unnamed immigrants’ charges and native countries in the release, but did not share info about their race and ethnicity, age, and dates and locations of arrest, among other data.

The ACLU first asked the sheriff’s office for the information, and was told to file a FOIA request with ICE, according to a legal complaint. After months of delays and appeals, ICE sent along limited info—citizenship, primary language, English literacy and proficiency, and gender—for 71 individuals in a spreadsheet. The agency claimed a right to exempt disclosure of “certain law enforcement sensitive information,” employees’ names and contact info, and case numbers in the documents, the complaint says.

In May, after the ACLU appealed, ICE sent the nonprofit a copy of an executive order issued by President Donald Trump during his first days in office that cracked down on “sanctuary” immigration protections—a move the ACLU says in its complaint “represents a cynical and cavalier approach to compliance” with FOIA.

The lawsuit notes the ACLU also filed a data request through the Maryland Public Information Act, but was told the information is in federal custody.

The complaint asks the court to rule ICE violated federal law and make the agency release the requested data and pay for any associated legal fees.

In a release, Nick Steiner, an attorney working as the ACLU’s Equal Justice Works Immigrants’ Rights fellow, said communities suffer when local authorities partner with ICE.

“We need to know the truth,” he said. “It’s a serious government accountability problem if 287(g) agreements between local police agencies and ICE mean that Maryland communities are kept in the dark about how their local sheriffs operate their police departments.”

ICE spokeswoman Justine Whelan said in an email Wednesday afternoon that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In a statement sent to Baltimore Fishbowl Thursday, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office noted it “is not the target of the suit,” and said it will “continue with our program as we have since its inception.” The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the contents of the filing.

The 287(g) program is “an important part of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s efforts to make our communities safer, is designed to give specially trained correctional deputies delegated authority for immigration enforcement in our Detention Center,” the statement said.

The ACLU has openly criticized 287(g) as “anti-immigrant,” arguing it encourages racial profiling and civil rights abuses by law enforcement. Proponents of stricter immigration policies, meanwhile, say the agreements help communities by rooting out law-breaking immigrants or those remaining in the country without authorization.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler has prodded other localities to sign up in step with his jurisdiction, even engaging in a public spat with the late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz over the matter last year. Baltimore County opted not to join the program after it was put up to the county council.

This story has been updated.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...