DHS accidentally informed Cuba that the deportees were seeking protection in the US.
The Department of Homeland Security inadvertently told the Cuban government this month that some of the immigrants the agency was trying to deport to the island nation were asking the US for protection from persecution and torture, officials said Monday.
Immigration and customs officials are now scrambling to rule out the possibility that the Cuban government could retaliate against individuals they know sought protection here. The agency has suspended its efforts to deport these immigrants and is considering releasing them from US custody.
The accidental disclosure of information to the Cuban government is an example of a “nightmare scenario” for any asylum seeker, said Robin Barnard, deputy director of refugee advocacy at Human Rights First.
Many immigrants who seek safety in the US fear that gangs, governments, or individuals will find out and retaliate against them or their families. To mitigate this risk, federal regulation generally prohibits the release of personal information of people seeking asylum and other remedies without the approval of senior national security officials.
“The words ‘flagrant’ and ‘illegal’ are not enough,” Barnard said. “And this is not some foreign government, but a government that has irrefutable evidence that regularly detains and tortures those it suspects of opposing it.”
An even more serious breach of confidentiality last month resulted in an unexpected disclosure to the Cuban government. Less than three weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials accidentally released the names, dates of birth, nationalities and places of detention of more than 6,000 immigrants who claimed to be fleeing torture and persecution. to the agency website.
In early December, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Security, when contacting the Cuban government about deportation flights into the country that had recently resumed after a hiatus, “inadvertently” indicated that some of the 103 Cubans who might have been sent on the flight were affected by a data dump at the end of November. , an ICE spokesman told The Times.
The Department of Homeland Security official did not name specific individuals. But telling Cuba that some of the potential deportees were affected by the ICE leak is tantamount to confirming that they were seeking asylum in the US. Every person whose information was leaked sought US protection, and the leak was widely reported in the US media.
Of the 103 Cubans that the Department of Homeland Security discussed with the Cuban government, 46 were affected by the leak.
ICE is contacting the Cubans whose information has been exposed, as well as any lawyers they may have. The agency will not remove them from the US immediately and give them the opportunity to update their protection statements. ICE’s lawyers are also evaluating “what are the legally available options for correcting disclosures, including possible release from custody,” the official said.
Anwen Hughes, director of legal strategy at Human Rights First, has years of experience comforting asylum seekers who are concerned that their home countries will find out about their claims.
“They are nervous, shaking and afraid that their relatives might be arrested,” Hughes said.
Hughes has long told his clients that they should feel safe because their information will be protected.
But the latest revelations got her thinking.
“I don’t want to say something that won’t be true,” she said. “It is important that these assurances are meaningful.”
The November disclosure of ICE 6,252 names has already triggered a massive agency effort to find out the causes of the error and reduce the risk of retaliation against immigrants whose information has been disclosed.
ICE officials began notifying immigrants whose information was posted online. The agency will not deport immigrants whose information it has erroneously posted for at least 30 days, so that the immigrants can determine whether disclosure would affect their cases.
On Thursday, a group of several members of Congress, including Representatives Norma Torres (D-Pomona) and Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-San Pedro), sent a letter to ICE leadership demanding answers about how the leak happened and how they responded to it. agency. .
“We believe that ICE’s failure to follow simple rules to protect asylum seekers has potentially put the lives of these vulnerable individuals and their families at risk, and we urge you to take immediate action to ensure the confidentiality of this and other sensitive information held by the agency.” the letter said.
“We are deeply concerned by this news as federal law requires information about asylum seekers to remain confidential. Some of us are haunted by people who risk their lives and livelihoods to help their communities thrive in the face of repressive regimes. Some of these brave people continue to seek asylum in the United States, and it is unacceptable to pass their information into the hands of unscrupulous individuals.”
The agency mistakenly posted the data during a scheduled update of its website on November 11th. 28. Human Rights First notified ICE officials of the error, and the agency promptly removed the data from its website. The file was posted on the page where ICE regularly publishes detention statistics.
The information hung for about five hours.
“Although this inadvertent disclosure is a violation of policy, and the agency is investigating the incident and taking all necessary corrective actions,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement.