Lawsuit Filed Under Freedom of Information Act
May 11, 2021, Chicago – Today, immigrant rights groups sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to compel ICE to release documents pertaining to its operation of so-called “Citizens Academy” programs. These programs are spearheaded by ICE’s public relations offices and one of the ways that ICE subverts local policies restricting collaboration with the agency.
Previous “Citizens Academy” programs hosted by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations units were held in immigrant-friendly localities like New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles. These programs are open by invitation only to individuals ICE labels “key stakeholders” of communities, including government employees and Fortune 500 campanies and banks. In these programs, participants interact with ICE officials in simulated immigration enforcement actions, including training in “defensive tactics, firearms familiarization and targeted arrests.” In July 2020, the immigrant rights groups submitted a FOIA request seeking documents related to the program. ICE has failed to produce any records, prompting the lawsuit filed today. ICE also failed to respond to a similar request by Congress.
“As a federal agency founded with public funds, ICE needs to be accountable to FOIA requests. We see this program as yet another example of how ICE expands its reach to further inflict trauma and terrorize immigrant communities. In order for community members to fully ensure that this Citizens Academy program won’t become a vigilante effort, we need to be able to see the details and content of the training,” said Antonio Gutierrez, Strategic Coordinator for Organized Communities Against Deportations.
The FOIA request was submitted in July 2020 in response to an announcement by ICE that it would hold an inaugural “Citizens Academy’' program hosted by ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) unit in Chicago. These programs themselves are not new to ICE; ICE has been operating similar forums since 2012 in a similar, non-transparent invite-only manner. These programs, funded by Congress, are a public relations effort, which immigrant rights advocates say is intended to seed xenophobia and violence towards immigrant community members, cause participants to view other community members as “targets,” and could prompt additional violence against immigrant communities. In previous programs, participants have taken part in simulated confrontations with other civilians that involved active shooting scenarios.
“For years, we have fought back to protect communities as ICE increasingly relied on local police to act as force multipliers to target, surveil, and arrest immigrants. ICE’s ‘Citizens Academy’ programs are another example of the agency expanding its reach, this time relying on so-called ‘community stakeholders,’ all handpicked by ICE, in localities that have chosen to limit police collaboration with ICE. It's imperative that these programs are defunded and for the training materials, budget, and participant lists to be released. We cannot allow ICE to expand its reach and ability to cause harm by turning civilians into informants for the agency," said Genia Blaser, Senior Staff Attorney at Immigrant Defense Project.
The FOIA request and lawsuit seek documents pertaining to why ICE decided to offer the Citizens Academies, how they are operated, budget information, training materials, staffing records, and protocols as to who is invited to participate. The suit was filed in the Northern District of Illinois by Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), the Immigrant Defense Project (IDP), Beyond Legal Aid, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“The public is entitled to full transparency surrounding these programs. If left unchallenged and unchecked, these programs allow ICE a prime opportunity to camouflage its deportation tactics in an attempt to bolster its public image,” said Emily Mallor, Supervising Attorney at Beyond Legal Aid.
Advocates say the “Citizens Academy” programs are part of the increasingly aggressive and violent targeting of immigrants, including at the U.S.–Mexico border, in sanctuary cities, and through increased ICE raids at homes, on the street, at courthouses, and in workplaces. Recent ICE raids in both Chicago and New York City resulted in ICE agents shooting bystanders.
“ICE wants to use its ‘Citizens Academy’ program as a sinister propaganda tool but then refuses to respond when impacted communities demand transparency about the program. They can’t have it both ways,” said Ian Head, coordinator of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Open Records Project.
Read the complaint filed today here.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.