FOIA is a law that allows anyone to request information from the United States government. The ICE FOIA office is responsible for receiving and responding to all FOIA requests that the agency receives.
In fiscal year 2012 the federal government, as a whole, received more than 650,000 FOIA requests. After receiving a request, the government has 20 business days to respond in full. If, however, there is a backlog the government may file a 10 day extension.
"The intent of the law is to provide access to government records," said Catrina Pavlik-Keenan, assistant director, ICE FOIA office. "It’s a disclosure law, which requires the agency to release as much information as possible to the public about ICE’s records while at the same time protecting national security, ICE’s law enforcement mission, our officers’ safety and privacy."
The ICE FOIA office works diligently to respond to all requests as quickly as possible. However, recently the backlog of requests has been steadily rising. Much of the recent backlog is due to a change in how ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) handle different FOIA requests.
In the past, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) handled all FOIA requests that were attached to an individual’s alien registration file. In April 2012, ICE began to process FOIA requests for ICE records contained in alien files.
"We didn’t know exactly how much work it would be, because we didn’t know exactly how many of those files contained records that we would need to process," Pavlik-Keenan explained. "We needed a system to handle an increased number of FOIA requests."
At the end of 2012, USCIS hired a contractor to assist with processing the requests. As a result, more than 23,000 FOIA requests were sent to ICE’s FOIA office in October 2012. That is in addition to the 1,000 requests ICE receives weekly.
In a matter of months, the number of FOIA requests rose by more than 300 percent.
"We are working hard to process every FOIA request," Pavlik-Keenan explained.
To that end, ICE is hiring contractors, bringing in law students and, DHS is temporarily assigning 10 employees to assist in bringing the backlog down.