Using a Freedom of Information request, the managing editor of Connecticut’s Journal Inquirer is trying to force New Haven’s city government to release the names of municipal ID card applicants.
Chris Powell’s initial FOI request for the “names, addresses and photographs” of applicants was denied by city officials last month on the grounds that the state’s FOI law exempts records that would pose safety risks and privacy invasions. The ID card program, which debuted this summer, is designed to give illegal immigrants a form of identification they can use to open bank accounts, get library cards and use other municipal services.
In her response to Powell, New Haven Community Services Administrator Kica Matos said that releasing the records would “constitute an invasion of the recipients’ personal privacy and as such would be contrary to both state and federal common law.”
Both the federal government and the Connecticut state government have enacted freedom of information laws that protect the public’s right to access government records. In Connecticut, a Freedom of Information Commission reviews requests that are initially rejected by municipal and state government agencies. Powell said he would not be filing a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission unless he was confident that card applicant records deserve to be revealed.
“[Applicant card information] really is being collected to further a scheme of the violation of the law, the scheme to facilitate illegal immigration,” he said. “And I don’t think any practice that advances that scheme or secrecy is proper.”
He said that the state FOI clause protecting privacy applies only to government personnel and that there is still room for the FOI Commission to debate and define what constitutes an invasion of privacy. Furthermore, releasing card applicant information would not amount to an invasion of privacy, Powell said, because card applicants voluntarily submitted their information to the city.
Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor representing the city in the FOI dispute, said the Supreme Court of Connecticut has already established a right to privacy for information such as cardholder identity. The question is really whether the government can invoke that right on behalf of cardholders, he said.
“The Supreme Court of Connecticut has recognized that private individuals have privacy interests in that information, which the government lacks the standing to invoke,” Wishnie said. “The person has to invoke [the privacy interests].”
Wishnie and Yale Law School students working with him are currently in conversations with cardholders who would like to voice their privacy objections as well as attorneys who will represent them on a pro bono basis.
If municipal ID cardholder information is released, Powell said, he doesn’t plan to “knock on anyone’s doors.” But he also acknowledges that the municipal card programs may be canceled if the commission forces the city to release ID applicants’ information.
“Personally, I would like to see the program canceled; it’s awful public policy,” Powell said. “I also don’t think the government should be compiling secret dossiers on political dissidents. There’s got to be damn good reason for any secret record-keeping, and this does not strike me as a good reason.”
New Haven’s ID card program is the first in the nation to grant residents access to public services and provides valid identification for both documented and undocumented residents seeking to open bank accounts. The city and its program made headlines last June when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents entered the predominantly Latino Fair Haven neighborhood and arrested 32 undocumented immigrants two days after the program was announced.
Powell said he has filed “dozens” of FOI requests and complaints in the past, ever since the act was ratified in both federal and state legislatures in the late 1960s. Most of those pertained directly to news stories being prepared for publication. He also writes an opinion column in the Journal Inquirer, in which he has criticized New Haven’s municipal ID card program for encouraging “unlimited, uncontrolled immigration, which means the very dissolution of the nation, its common culture and law itself.”
“My impression was that the Feds were not picking on New Haven, but it was New Haven that had snubbed its nose at the Feds,” he said. “Now that’s not to defend how they did it. … There’s no excuse for the cruelty that we see in the raids. But it did seem to me that … New Haven was provoking the Feds.”
Powell construed undocumented immigration as “destroying the middle class” and as a result of the government’s failure to crack down on illegal immigration, as well as federal fiscal policies that have suppressed commodity prices and left nations, especially those in Latin America, impoverished.
Last week, New Haven community leaders came together to stress the need for congressional legislation that would protect immigrant and worker rights while curtailing economic policies that cause immigrants to migrate from their impoverished home countries to America. Their combined manifesto, titled “Immigrant Rights are Human Rights,” also affirmed the municipal ID card program and condemned the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.
According to Hank Pawlowski, an attorney working with the FOI Commission, about three months pass between a complaint’s filing and hearing. Complaints with the commission expire within a year of their filing, but the commission very rarely runs out of time before addressing a complaint, an FOI commission representative said.
As noted in New Haven’s municipal ID card application forms, applicant information may be subject to disclosure by a federal subpoena, which Wishnie said would only be issued if the federal government were undertaking a specific law enforcement investigation. He said it is hard to foretell the likelihood of a federal subpoena.