Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have released nearly 3,000 immigrants whose personal information, including birthdates and detention locations, was inadvertently posted online by the government, according to U.S. officials.
In late November, officials accidentally posted to the agency’s website the names, birthdates, nationalities and detention locations of 6,252 immigrants who claimed to be fleeing torture and persecution. Immigrant advocates criticized the disclosure, saying it could put people at risk.
ICE will not deport any immigrants affected by the disclosure until they have a chance to raise the issue in immigration court, officials said. But more than 100 immigrants whose information was leaked already had been deported by the time the breach was discovered. Another group — fewer than 10 individuals, officials said — was deported shortly after the data leak but before immigrants were notified. The agency is willing to help those deportees who wish to return to the U.S. and seek asylum, officials added.
Many immigrants who seek safety in the U.S. fear that gangs, governments or individuals back home will find out that they did so and retaliate against them or their families. To mitigate that risk, a federal regulation generally forbids the release of personal information of people seeking asylum and other protections without approval by top Homeland Security officials.
“Although inadvertent, ICE put lives at risk through this data breach. The commitments ICE has made to those impacted will go a significant way toward mitigating the harm done, but only if ICE is diligent and transparent in making good on its promises,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, an immigrant advocacy organization.
The agency should take more proactive action, however, Altman said, and guarantee the safe return of the immigrants already deported so they can make a new claim for asylum.
Curtis Morrison, an immigration lawyer in California, said he is planning on filing a lawsuit on behalf of more than a dozen immigrant detainees who claim the disclosure put them in danger.
The agency’s “actions are not sufficient to mitigate the harm of ICE’s data breach,” Morrison said in an email Thursday.
ICE’s disclosure of the more than 6,000 names triggered a massive effort by the agency to investigate the causes of the error and reduce the risk of retaliation against immigrants whose information was exposed.
The agency has been contacting immigrants whose information was posted online, including several hundred people who had already been released from custody by the time the information was posted.
The agency mistakenly published the data during a routine update of its website Nov. 28. Human Rights First notified ICE officials about the mistake, and the agency quickly deleted the data. The file was posted to a page where ICE regularly publishes detention statistics. The information was up for about five hours.
“Though unintentional, this release of information is a breach of policy and the agency is investigating the incident and taking all corrective actions necessary,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement.
Thus far, about 2,900 immigrants named in the leak have been released from custody. An additional 2,200 still in custody will have their cases reviewed for potential release.
ICE officials will allow some immigrants affected by the data disclosure to seek asylum even if they would not normally have been eligible. The agency will not oppose efforts to reopen cases of immigrants affected by the leak.
In December, the Department of Homeland Security inadvertently tipped off the Cuban government that some of the immigrants the agency sought to deport to the island nation had asked the U.S. for protection from persecution or torture.
A Homeland Security official communicating with the Cuban government about deportation flights to the country “unintentionally” indicated that some of the 103 Cubans who could have been placed on a flight had been affected by the late November data breach, ICE officials told Congress in December.
The Homeland Security official did not name any specific individuals. But telling Cuba that some of the potential deportees had been affected by the ICE leak amounted to confirming that they had sought shelter in the U.S. Every person whose information was leaked had sought U.S. protection, and the leak was widely covered in U.S. media.
None of the 103 Cubans have been removed and ICE officials said that about 90 have been released from U.S. custody as of early January, agency officials said this week.
In December, several members of Congress, including Reps. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) and Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro), sent a letter to ICE leadership demanding answers on how the initial leak happened.
“We believe that ICE’s failure to comply with simple regulations to protect asylum seekers have potentially endangered the lives of these vulnerable individuals and their families and urge you to take immediate action to ensure the privacy of this and other sensitive information held by the agency,” the letter stated.
“We are deeply troubled by this news because federal law mandates that the information of people seeking asylum is to be kept confidential. Several of us frequently receive visits from individuals risking life and livelihood to help their communities thrive in the face of repressive regimes. Some of these courageous individuals go on to seek asylum in the United States — and it is unacceptable to put their information into the hands of bad actors.”