Want to learn about immigration? There’s a tool for that

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s repeated claims that the administration did not have policy of separating migrant families at the border were irrefutably repudiated when documents with her signature approving such a policy came to light.

Fruits of FOIA: memo from federal immigration agencies to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

Importantly, those damning documents became available not because some version of Deep Throat delivered them to an intrepid reporter in a darkened parking lot. Instead, Open the Government (OTG), a nonprofit nonpartisan dedicated to transparency and accountability in government, got them in the mail a short time after making a simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the DHS. Although the documents’ prosaic arrival was not the stuff of Hollywood, the evidence they contained was critical for journalists, law-makers, activists and advocacy organizations in their efforts to hold the administration accountable.

That’s why Open the Government will train individuals on how to access government information during its “Immigration FOIA-thon,” offered as part of Colorado Migrahack 2019. For two days in September (the 27th and 28th) Migrahack will bring together communities most impacted by immigration with journalists, developers, data scientists, and students to analyze big data sets on migration and immigration and ultimately creating multimedia stories to share what they’ve learned.

[T]hose damning documents became available not because some version of Deep Throat delivered them to an intrepid reporter in a darkened parking lot. Instead, Open the Government (OTG), a nonprofit nonpartisan dedicated to transparency and accountability in government, got them in the mail a short time after making a simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the DHS.

OTG will hold the Immigration FOIA-thon on the first day of Migrahack in order to train people to use records requests at the federal, state, and local level to uncover facts about the interplay between local governments and the larger immigration system. Participants will work together to determine what type of data or records would be most useful for their work, then collectively create and file information requests seeking the information. Importantly, OTG will remain involved after the training, acting as a clearinghouse to track information requests, helping with appeals, and analyzing responses.

Incontrovertible proof that the administration intended to enforce its zero-tolerance policy by separating parents crossing the border from their children is an important piece of the immigration puzzle, but without question, the immigration system remains shrouded in secrecy. The public still doesn’t know all of the details about the creation, implementation and impact of the family separation policy. We struggle to learn the full story of the conditions in which families and children are being detained. And we lack a complete accounting of the degree to which local law enforcement facilitates or enforces detentions and deportations due to a lack of transparency.

The good news is that federal and state freedom of information laws can be an antidote to much of that secrecy, and they are available to anyone who wants access to information. Through our FOIA-thon, OTG wants to put that power in the hands of students, journalists, advocates, and average citizens who wish to use it. OTG is not alone in our quest for greater access to information. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, one of our coalition partners, is a valuable resource for information on accessing public records at the local level.

The story of the U.S. immigration enforcement system has not yet been told in its entirety. Migrahack and OTG’s Immigration FOIA-thon tools to uncover facts that will help them understand and tell the story so that we all can be better informed.


Lisa Rosenberg is executive director of Open the Government. Rosenberg is an experienced nonprofit advocate and expert in transparency in government issues. Lisa’s career in public service includes eight years advocating for transparency to promote accountability at the Sunlight Foundation, launching many of the organization’s advocacy initiatives.

Colorado Media Project

Together, we are strengthening and sustaining trustworthy local journalism that serves all Coloradans.

Thanks to Nancy Watzman

Lisa Rosenberg

Written by

Lisa Rosenberg is the Executive Director of Open the Government, working to strengthen democracy by putting information in the hands of people.

Colorado Media Project

Together, we are strengthening and sustaining trustworthy local journalism that serves all Coloradans.

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