Freedom of Information Act Delays Challenged in Court12 Oct 2015
A federal judge has rejected a motion filed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges a pattern of delays by the CBP in releasing documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found that the various arguments made by the CBP to dismiss the case were almost entirely without merit. This is only a first step in this court battle, but it is an important one that, hopefully, will result in forcing the CBP to start complying with the legal requirements set by FOIA. A copy of the Judge’s decision is available online.
Background on FOIA
FOIA is an important tool often used in the immigration context to collect documents and information needed to pursue immigration benefits. Many immigration filings are of a time-sensitive nature. So, it is often of vital importance to obtain access to official government records within a reasonable period. Accordingly, FOIA mandates that the CBP generally provide the applicant with the requested information within 20 business days. More details regarding the importance of FOIA are available in the MurthyDotCom NewsBrief, FOIA Request Can Resolve Some Immigration Cases (23.Sep.2011).
Lawsuit for Cases with Backlogs of More Than 20 Business Days
In the case at hand, Meredith R. Brown, et al. v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, et al., the plaintiffs have filed FOIA requests that have been pending beyond the 20-day statutory period; in fact, some of these plaintiffs “…have waited for one year or more without response.” The lawsuit alleges “…a pattern and practice [by the CBP] of violating FOIA’s response timeline.”
It should be noted that, recently, CBP attempted to reduce its volume of FOIA requests by allowing online access to I-94 card arrival and departure records, as was discussed in the MurthyDotCom NewsBrief, entitled I-94 and Border Crossing History Available Online (21.May.2014).
Judge Rules Against CBP
The CBP made several arguments as to why the court should dismiss this lawsuit, but the judge clearly found all of the agency’s arguments to be extremely weak. As the court noted, “The main thrust of CBP’s motion to dismiss is that violation of the FOIA response deadline is not a cognizable claim. This argument flies in the face of FOIA’s plain meaning and several cases finding that unexcused delay is a perfectly valid claim.” CBP attempted to distinguish previous court cases from the present lawsuit, but the court concluded that the “CBP’s response … could not be less persuasive.” The court went on to chastise CBP’s various arguments in favor of dismissing the lawsuit, calling them “misdirected,” “poorly taken,” and “bereft of support.”
FOIA is a key tool to ensure government transparency. The fact that the United States empowers citizens to demand necessary documents and information from the government should be celebrated. It is encouraging to see the nation’s federal courts properly enforcing this act.
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