As the U.S. Border Patrol has doubled down on a fictionalized video, “The Gotaway,” about a migrant eluding its officers and murdering a man, immigrant advocacy groups are using a little-known federal law known as the Information Quality Act to pressure the Department of Homeland Security to revise or retract the film.
Enacted in 2001 as part of a spending bill, the Information Quality Act directed the Office of Management and Budget to issue “guidelines for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information disseminated by federal agencies.” The act is receiving more attention under the Trump administration among public-interest groups that seek to hold officials accountable for lies and misinformation.
The legal services provider Al Otro Lado and other pro-immigrant groups sent a letter Friday to Chad Wolf, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, and Chief Information Officer Karen Evans. The letter, first reported by the Daily Beast, says the video violates the IQA because it “contains blatantly false and misleading information.” It demands the video’s correction or removal. Otherwise, the groups plan to sue.
“In this climate, we feel that casting immigrants as murderous thugs will spark violence against already vulnerable immigrant communities,” said Erika Pinheiro, an attorney at Al Otro Lado, in an interview. She added that the video is part of a larger DHS pattern of “lying to Congress, the courts, and the public in order to perpetuate a white-nationalist view.”
A DHS whistleblower report last week accused Wolf and other Trump appointees of obstructing intelligence reports about the threat of white supremacists, who are responsible for most extremist-related violence in the country. Wolf has been focused on the alleged threat of anti-fascists, anti-racists, and immigrants.
Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works, said the video is in line with the tactics of fascist regimes, which “try to create immense fear around their standard targets, which are always immigrants, leftists, and minorities,” he said. “It’s a monstrous piece of propaganda.”
The video sparked controversy after it was uploaded to the Border Patrol’s YouTube page on Sept. 3. Two days later, The Daily Beast reported on its use of false and misleading statistics and the video was removed from the YouTube page on Sept. 5 without explanation. On Sept. 9, Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott re-uploaded it on Twitter, saying: “The ‘Gotaway’ was the 1st in a series of videos created to remind our Border Patrol agents that the risks they take every day to protect America matter & result in saving American’s lives well beyond our physical borders. Choose truth, not sides.”
Scott blamed the temporary removal of the video on copyright and attribution concerns. DHS has not responded to repeated requests for inquiries about the video’s falsehoods. In response to a Sunday request for comment on the alleged IQA violations, a spokesman said: “We have received your inquiry and we will respond as soon as we can. You have our most recent statement. A Monday morning response is unrealistic and clearly an unfair expectation.”
The three-minute film starts with two “agents” in a dark patrol vehicle listening to a real 2015 CBS newscast about the murder of a 64-year-old woman. “Man, that’s the second one in less than a week,” one agent says. “This is getting out of hand,” the other says. Then, dramatic footage shows agents arresting suspects. One escapes, then stabs a man who bleeds out on the ground as the screen fades to black and titles appear: “Every apprehension matters…” and then “DO YOU KNOW WHO GOT AWAY?”
The advocacy groups told DHS in their letter that the dialogue between the agents in the film was “deliberately misleading” because a “thorough search” revealed no evidence that two such murders occurred that week. The letter also notes that the killer’s tattoos do not match the gotaway’s. “Either Border Patrol has a difficult time telling the difference between Latino immigrants, or the intention is to mislead the viewer into thinking all Latino men with tattoos are immigrants without status who have avoided the Border Patrol and will soon commit heinous crimes,” the letter reads.
The film concludes with a fast-paced succession of news headlines featuring the well-known cases of Kate Steinle and Mollie Tibbetts, whose relatives have spoken out against the way the Trump administration has twisted their deaths. (The migrant in Steinle’s case was acquitted of the murder charge by a jury, and the migrant in Tibbetts’ case has not been convicted.)
One headline in the video comes from the Washington Examiner: “Report: Illegal immigration leads to 2,200 deaths, 118,000 rapes, 138,000 assaults.” Those numbers actually refer to crimes committed against immigrants on their route to the United States. Another headline comes from the right-wing blog Breitbart: “Fact Check: Yes, Thousands of Americans Have Been Killed by Illegal Aliens.” The blogger, John Binder, links to a Government Accountability Office report that he claims “reveals about 12 Americans a day are killed by illegal aliens.” But that report (PDF) shows no such statistic.
The letter notes that the video’s message and use of these headlines contradicts the evidence, which shows that migrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born individuals. The letter was signed by Al Otro Lado, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, CHIRLA, CARECEN, Santa Fe Dreamers Project, and Haitian Bridge Alliance Inc.
“The Border Patrol produced a video which is grossly misleading, racist, and largely useless (unless one considers spreading xenophobic white supremacist propaganda to be particularly useful),” said Nicole Ramos, a lawyer with Al Otro Lado. She added that the video resembled propaganda from a “state-controlled film crew under an authoritarian regime.”
“We look forward to hearing back from you within the 60-day deadline for responses to IQA petitions,” read an addendum to the letter sent Sunday. “However, the video already had almost 19,000 views by the evening of September 11th, two days after its release, and is being disseminated quickly. Therefore because of the grave risk the video poses of misleading the public, and the irreparable harm of doing so, we urge you to respond to this request, and retract and revise the video at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Ben Berwick, an attorney with Democracy Forward—another group that sued the administration under the IQA after it failed to address concerns raised about a January 2018 report falsely inflating the percentage of terrorists who are born outside of the U.S.—said the IQA is useful to combat this administration’s “casual relationship with facts and the truth.”
The act, he said, is “one of the few laws that can be used to make sure information coming out of this administration meets some floor of quality and accuracy.”