ICE Sued For Records Of Chemicals Sprayed At Wash. Facility

By Rachel Riley | July 31, 2023, 8:31 PM EDT ·

An immigrant rights group filed a lawsuit Friday asking a Washington federal judge to compel U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hand over internal reports of guards at a Tacoma detention facility spewing chemical agents at people being held there earlier this year.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights project alleged in Friday's lawsuit that ICE has violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to meet the extended 30-day deadline to respond to its request for records associated with the February incident at the Northwest ICE Processing Center, including audio and video footage. Guards at the center, privately operated by GEO Group Inc., sprayed cannisters containing unspecified chemicals into an indoor housing unit on Feb. 1 after detainees barricaded themselves inside when their belongings were confiscated, according to the complaint.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project says it filed an expedited FOIA request on May 17, seeking all documentation of the incident under ICE's use-of-force reporting requirements. But the federal agency still has not responded, despite the statutory deadline and public interest in the incident, which was covered by Seattle media outlets and raised concerns among civil rights groups and the Washington attorney general's office, the complaint states.

ICE told the Seattle Times that the federal agency OK'd the "non-lethal use of force" after razor blades were discovered during a housing unit inspection. A detainee who witnessed the conflict told the Times it began when guards took away soda cans that were being used as water bottles in the housing unit of roughly 30 people. At the time, there were also reports of a hunger strike and concerns about unsanitary conditions at the facility, according to the Times' Feb. 3 article.

FOIA allows the federal agency 20 days to decide whether it will produce the documents, with a 10-day extension permitted in unusual circumstances, the lawsuit states. ICE broke the law by failing to produce a "substantive response," even though the advocacy group waited the additional 10 days, said Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Group.

"So it's not enough to simply acknowledge the request or say they will eventually provide the records," Adams told Law360 in an email on Monday. "As a practical matter the [government] agencies do generally blow by these timelines, but that is the point of the lawsuit, to essentially get the court's oversight to ensure they produce the records."

According to the complaint, ICE has also failed to respond to an identical request made in March by the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights, which launched a separate lawsuit last week against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security alleging that the department withheld records regarding human rights violations amid armed conflict in El Salvador in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project served as co-counsel in a FOIA class action that led a California federal court to compel federal immigration authorities to address a backlog of requests for files containing information about how foreign-born individuals arrived in the U.S.

The advocacy group has also succeeded in FOIA claims it brought in Seattle federal court on behalf of the Council on American Islamic Relations' Washington chapter against U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In October 2020, U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez partially granted the groups' motion for summary judgment, ordering CBP to turn over records relating to the detention of Iranians at a port of entry in Blaine, Washington, in early 2020.

Representatives for ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is represented in-house by Matt Adams, Glenda M. Aldana Madrid, Leila Kang and Aaron Korthuis.

Counsel information for ICE was unavailable on Monday.

The case is Northwest Immigrant Rights Project v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, case number 2:23-cv-01127, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

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