A left-leaning group has accused the Department of Homeland Security of violating federal regulations by revealing private information about immigrants to reporters at conservative news outlets.
On Monday, Democracy Forward, a liberal anti-corruption advocacy group, sent a letter to the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties requesting that the agency open an investigation into the department’s press office.
The organization said that according to emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, DHS communications staff had on at least ten occasions provided or confirmed to reporters details about the citizenship and immigration status of people accused of crimes in the U.S. Such disclosures, Democracy Forward alleged in its letter, may have violated federal regulations prohibiting the department from disclosing private information about individuals to the media.
“These instances suggest that DHS press officials may regularly disregard applicable restrictions on disclosure of PII. These DHS officials seem motivated primarily by an interest in advancing a narrative that immigrants, even those legally within the United States, are criminals—an improper consideration that should not factor into the required balancing analysis,” the letter said.
In a review of emails obtained via the FOIA requests, Democracy Forward found that DHS actively lobbied willing conservative media outlets, including Fox News and Breitbart News, to aggressively report on crimes specifically alleged to have been committed by immigrants. In the process of collaborating with those outlets, the office possibly disclosed details about the citizenship, immigration status, and criminal history of individuals accused of crimes.
On one such occasion in 2018, the DHS communications office urged a Fox News reporter to include that an Iraqi man accused of shooting a police officer was a refugee, and provided details on background about the alleged shooter’s immigration status.
“The news here is that he is a refugee. It is not mentioned. That is new,” said the communications official, whose name was redacted in the FOIA emails.
On numerous occasions, a reporter at Breitbart News solicited information from DHS about various crimes, inquiring whether individuals were chain migrants or had overstayed their visas. The department said regularly they would “run the traps” to see if the alleged criminal was from the U.S.
Democracy Forward argued that these disclosures—and others unearthed in the FOIA emails—violated the Privacy Act, which, with a few law-enforcement exceptions prohibits the government from releasing personal identifying information. The group also claimed that the disclosures violated the department’s policy not to release personally identifying information without performing an analysis of the information’s relevance to the public.
“DHS and its subcomponents house a great deal of extraordinarily sensitive information about individuals within the United States. These records are maintained in service of carrying out the Department’s important immigration and law enforcement responsibilities, and are properly subject to a variety of protections to ensure that they are not abused,” read the group’s letter. “The possibility that the information contained in these records is being improperly disseminated, particularly as part of a deliberate use of DHS records to further an anti-immigration agenda, is a serious concern.”
This isn’t the first time Trump’s Homeland Security has been found to have actively worked to push the immigrants-as-criminals narrative behind the scenes. In 2017, The Intercept reported that the federal department specifically ordered immigration officials to portray undocumented immigrants swept up in ICE raids as criminals.
And there has long been some debate within the Trump administration and various government agencies about how much information the administration can disclose about immigrants accused of committing crimes.
According to Politico, in 2017, White House adviser Stephen Miller told ICE officials to include more details in agency press releases about immigrants they had apprehended and, in some cases, planned to deport. At the time, some agency officials worried the directive may put them in dicey legal territory if they disclosed the names of individuals the department did not end up charging (the DHS updated its privacy rules in 2017 to exclude undocumented immigrants and non-U.S .citizens from existing regulations).
“At one point, he wanted us to be releasing press releases every day about the people we had detained and their criminal status. We were constantly doing a dance just to remain in a legal place,” a former DHS official told Politico in 2019.
Democracy Forward has made a habit recently of needling the Trump administration and its cozy dealings with conservative media outlets. Last year, after unearthing emails in which a Treasury Department official directed a Fox employee to use his preferred wording on a story, the group called on the Treasury Department to investigate whether it had violated an obscure federal law barring government agencies from spreading information without disclosing its origin.
While much of the attention about the links between the Trump administration and right-wing media have focused on the president’s personal relationship with conservative cable stars, the administration’s symbiotic relationship with the conservative media ecosystem extends far beyond the White House.
In 2018, The Daily Beast obtained correspondence showing how Fox & Friends production staff allowed an Environmental Protection Agency communications official to review a segment script before an on-air interview with the agency’s then-administrator Scott Pruitt.