Immigration and Customs Enforcement mistakenly released the names and other identifying details of 6,252 migrants seeking protection in the United States this week, the agency said Wednesday. The error raised fears for their safety among advocates for asylum seekers.
The list, which was posted on the ICE.gov website for several hours on Monday and reviewed by The New York Times before it was deleted, contained the migrants’ dates of birth, identification numbers, the detention center where they were being held and when they were booked there. Sixty-three Russians were identified. Chinese, Iranians, Mexicans and Venezuelans were among others on the list.
More than 30,000 immigrants are currently held in detention, and a substantial share are seeking asylum after fleeing persecution in their home countries. Asylum seekers are housed in hundreds of facilities across the country. The list that was released did not include the names of all the asylum seekers and facilities where they were being held.
Under federal regulation, immigration officials are “generally” prohibited from disclosing any information about asylum seekers and their applications with third parties, largely to protect the migrants and their families from retaliation by government authorities and others in their home countries.
“When people come to the United States seeking protection, they are putting their trust in the U.S. government. When a breach like this happens, it shows a reckless disregard for their safety,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders, a nonprofit law firm in California that serves asylum seekers.
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“It puts people at grave risk if they are returned back to countries where their persecutors may have seen that information,” she said.
Lawyers who represent asylum seekers said that the data breach could have a chilling effect, with those who merit protection less willing to trust the U.S. government with sensitive information.
Ally Bolour, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, said that his clients applying for protection are often traumatized and must be assured repeatedly that their personal information “will be shared with the U.S. government and no one else.”
Elora Mukherjee, a law professor at Columbia University, said that the breach could also result in harm to family members of asylum seekers in their home countries, and urged action by the Biden administration to allow the migrants to remain in the United States because the disclosures could have “life-or-death consequences” for them.
“Family members who remain in the home country may face retribution from their government, gangs, and other persecutors,” said Ms. Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the law school. “The Biden administration must take swift corrective action — releasing these individuals from detention and offering meaningful protections that would enable them to remain in the U.S.”
In the statement released Wednesday, the U.S. immigration agency said its personnel had “erroneously posted” the list while performing routine updates, and that the information for the migrants, who are all in its custody, had been online for about five hours before it was removed.
Anwen Hughes, a lawyer at Human Rights First, told The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that she hoped the breach would remind the government to be more careful with sensitive data.
In an email, the U.S. immigration agency said that the release of the data was a breach of its policy, and that it was investigating the matter and “taking all corrective actions necessary.”
The agency said that it had uploaded a spreadsheet with the information on Monday morning, and that it had been notified of the error that afternoon by the nonprofit Human Rights First. The agency said it deleted the information about 11 minutes after being made aware it was online.
The agency said it was notifying the affected migrants and their lawyers, so that they could assess whether it would impact their claims to protection in the United States. The agency said it was also taking steps to ensure it did not take further action on those migrants’ cases before making this determination.
It said it was also monitoring the internet to see if the information was being reposted, and would use IP addresses to identify who had accessed it. Those people, the agency said, would receive notifications asking them to destroy any copies of the information.
Many asylum seekers held in detention are transferred to ICE facilities after crossing the southern border and requesting safe haven in the United States. They are shackled and flown to detention centers in states like Louisiana and New York.
The migrants are placed in removal proceedings because they entered the country unlawfully, and try to persuade a judge to grant them asylum while locked up. Their cases are heard on an accelerated basis. If they lose, they are ordered to be deported.
ICE allows some migrants to be released after paying bond, which can exceed $30,000, enabling them to pursue their cases while living in the country. But many migrants cannot raise the money, which must be paid upfront in its entirety.