The Yale Law School human rights clinic sued the Department of Homeland Security last week in federal court to release records on Operation Front Line, a secret national security program targeting illegal immigrants.
Students in the clinic filed the suit in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut after a Freedom of Information Act request they filed was ignored. Although little information about the initiative is publicly available and government representatives declined to disclose its status, the program was listed in the $1.5 billion 2006 budget for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Its one-line description in the budget summary stated that Operation Front Line was meant to target “potential vulnerabilities in immigration and trade systems relative to the national security of the United States.”
The government has 30 days to reply to the lawsuit and has until late February to file a motion for dismissal of the case.
Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93, the professor supervising the case for the clinic, said the program is a “black box” and that the public needs to know more.
“It may be entirely lawful, but the fact is the public can’t assess this without a glimmer of understanding of the program,” he said.
Wishnie said the program would not be legal if it used racial profiling, and many post 9/11 “anti-terrorism” initiatives have singled out Arabs. Daniel Freeman ’04 LAW ’07, one of the students filing the lawsuit, said the fact that the program is “targeted” raises suspicions about its legality. Operation Front Line earned a perfect score in a White House ICE performance assessment, which described the program as “effectively targeted.”
Jamie Zuieback, an ICE spokeswoman, said the initiative focused on immigration violators who posed an enhanced public safety or national security threat, but race or ethnicity were not used in identifying or arresting violators.
“The arrests were predicated on violations of immigration law,” she said. “All aliens apprehended in the initiative in violation of federal immigration laws were afforded an opportunity for administrative review of their cases.”
She declined to comment on whether the operation is still in existence but said it was established as a response to an increase in threats after 9/11.
“The initiative was carried out as part of a government-wide security plan in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election and through the 2005 inauguration,” Zuieback said.
Wishnie said he thinks it is interesting that the agency connected the program to the presidential election, as the program could have been used for either national security or political reasons in the lead-up to the election.
The law students came across Operation Front Line while examining the case of an immigrant affected by the program. Wishnie said their interest was piqued when Homeland Security refused to release information.
“It’s unusual, because Homeland Security tends to disclose to the public — on their Web site you’ll see [information on] this and that operation,” he said.
Freeman said now that the students have filed a suit, the government may comply with their request.
“Often times after a FOIA lawsuit is filed, the local U.S. attorney will get in touch with us and may work things out to a certain degree, but it’s the government’s obligation to respond,” he said.
The original FOIA request was ignored for longer than 20 days, the legal limit by which the government must respond. Freeman said the act allows for some information to be withheld in the interest of national security, but the students currently have no reason to believe the program falls in this category.
A representative from the FOIA office of ICE said the agency currently has a backlog of requests, so replies sometimes take more than 20 days to process.