The Department of Homeland Security inadvertently informed the Cuban government this month that some of the immigrants the agency intended to deport to the island nation had asked the United States for protection from persecution or torture, officials said Monday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are now scrambling to rule out the possibility that the Cuban government could retaliate against people it knows sought protection here. The agency has halted its efforts to deport the immigrants in question and is considering releasing them from US custody.
Accidental disclosure to the Cuban government is an example of any asylum seeker’s “nightmare scenario,” said Robyn Barnard, associate director of refugee advocacy at Human Rights First.
Many immigrants who seek safety in the United States fear that gangs, governments, or individuals back home will find out they did so and retaliate against them or their families. To mitigate this risk, a federal regulation generally prohibits the release of personal information about individuals seeking asylum and other protections without the authorization of senior Homeland Security officials.
“The words atrocious and illegal don’t go far enough,” Barnard said. “And this is no foreign government, but a government that we have irrefutable evidence of that routinely detains and tortures those it suspects of being in opposition.”
An even bigger breach of confidentiality last month led directly to the shocking revelation in 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 said they were fleeing torture and persecution. on the agency’s website.
In early December, a Homeland Security official who communicated with the Cuban government about deportation flights into the country, which recently resumed after a hiatus, “inadvertently” indicated that some of the 103 Cubans who could to have been placed on a flight had been affected by the data dump in late November, an ICE official told The Times.
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 is tantamount to confirming that they had sought refuge in the US. All of the individuals whose information was leaked had sought protection in the US, and the leak was widely covered in the US media.
Of the 103 Cubans that National Security discussed with the Cuban government, 46 were affected by the leak.
ICE is in the process of contacting the Cubans whose information was released, as well as any attorneys they may have. The agency will not remove them immediately from the US and give them an opportunity to update their claims for protection. ICE lawyers are also evaluating “what options are legally available to address the disclosure, 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 worried about their home countries finding out about their applications.
“They came in nervous, shaking and afraid their family members might be arrested,” Hughes said.
Hughes has long told its customers that they should feel confident that their information would be protected.
But the most recent revelations have given him pause.
“I don’t want to say things that won’t be true,” he said. “It is important that these guarantees are meaningful.”
ICE’s release in November of the 6,252 names had already sparked a massive agency effort to investigate the causes of the error and reduce the risk of retaliation against immigrants whose information was exposed.
ICE officials have begun notifying immigrants whose information was posted online. The agency will not deport immigrants whose information it mistakenly released for at least 30 days because the immigrants they can determine whether disclosure will affect their cases.
On Thursday, a group of several members of Congress, including Reps. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) and Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro), sent a letter to ICE management demanding answers about how it happened the leak and how the agency was responding. . .
“We believe that ICE’s failure to follow simple rules to protect asylum seekers has put the lives of these vulnerable people and their families at risk, and we urge you to take immediate action to ensure the privacy of this and other sensitive data held by the agency”. said the letter
“We are deeply troubled by this news because federal law requires that information about people seeking asylum be kept confidential. Many of us are frequently visited by individuals who risk their lives and livelihoods to help their communities thrive in the face of repressive regimes. Some of these brave people are going to seek asylum in the United States, and putting their information in the hands of bad actors is unacceptable.”
The agency published the data by mistake during a routine update to its website in November. 28. Human Rights First notified ICE officials of the error, and the agency quickly deleted the data from its website. The file was posted to a page where ICE regularly posts arrest statistics.
The briefing lasted about five hours.
“While unintentional, this release of information 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.