In July, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)—the agency charged with maintaining records produced by the federal government—published a request made by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to begin destroying detainee records, including those related to in-custody deaths, sexual assault, and the use of solitary confinement. The request has been preliminarily approved.
The petition to destroy records comes at a time when ICE has been tasked with increasing its enforcement operations, widening its apprehension net to include groups of previously protected people, even those benefiting from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that was rescinded on September 5. Unless Congress passes some version of the Dream Act, DACA recipients will see their protection begin to expire next March. ICE petitioned to begin destroying some types of records as quickly as three years after they are created, 20 years for others.
Some ICE records, however, will be maintained by NARA in perpetuity. Laurence Brewer, chief records officer for the US government, explained to me in an e-mail that federal records are kept permanently for one of three possible reasons: They document (1) the rights of citizens, (2) the actions of federal officials essential to understanding and evaluating federal actions, or (3) “the national experience.” Examples of documents that NARA will permanently keep are ICE’s Internal Affairs Significant Misconduct Investigative Case Files and the Department of Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties annual report.
Immigration advocates worry that ICE’s request, made public at a time of expanding operations (the original request, which went through multiple revisions, was made in 2015), is a further turn towards obfuscation for the notoriously opaque agency. Royce Bernstein Murray, policy director of the American Immigration Council, argues that ICE’s power is already set to increase dramatically: According to the Los Angeles Times, a January memo from Trump’s “immigration policy experts” proposed raising the so-called “bed quota,” a congressional mandate that currently requires ICE to keep at least 34,000 inmates in ICE custody at all times (in practice that number has at points risen to over 40,000) to as high as 80,000 per day; the Trump administration has given the agency free rein to pursue increased levels of enforcement; and Trump himself has decided to end the DACA program that shielded 800,000 young people from deportation. Altogether, as Murray points out, we are seeing ever more people being rounded up, held in detention, and deported.