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Immigration Law

EOIR's Disappearing Data: McHenry Stonewalls

TRAC, June 16, 2020

"EOIR Director McHenry Replies To TRAC's Letters But Ignores Agency's Data Troubles

Despite TRAC's appeals to the EOIR, Immigration Court records continue to disappear each month. This is unfortunately still the case with EOIR's latest data release. Yesterday, June 15, we finally received a letter from EOIR Director James McHenry in response. But instead of addressing the obvious serious data management problems at EOIR, Director McHenry denied there were any problems and attacked TRAC's motives for spreading what he claims are falsehoods about the agency.

Background

TRAC initially reported 1,507 missing applications for relief in our October 2019 report, which grew to 3,799 missing applications the following month. We wrote EOIR Director James McHenry providing a copy of the 1,507 missing applications asking for answers on why these records were missing from their files. We wrote again when the number of missing applications more than doubled the following month. Not only did we provide substantive evidence of the issues, we also repeatedly reassured the administration that we stood ready to work with them to fully resolve the underlying issues. These letters were met with silence. Not only have these particular cases disappeared entirely, they have not been restored in any subsequent data releases including the latest data TRAC received last week.

Alarmingly, the data from EOIR for April 2020 on asylum and other applications for relief to the Immigration Courts was missing an even larger number of records—so large, in fact, that TRAC ceased publishing this information on our website and recommended the public be cautious in relying on EOIR asylum statistics until these problems were corrected. TRAC published those findings on June 3, 2020.

The Good and The Bad: EOIR's Latest Data Release

Late on Friday, June 5, after normal business hours, EOIR sent a brief email acknowledging that data the agency had provided TRAC was, as TRAC had reported two days earlier, not usable. The problem was attributed to a "scripting error"—that is, problems made in the computer code that the EOIR's Office of Information Technology had developed. A "corrected" version of the data was posted, shortly followed by EOIR's regular monthly release with updated data through May 2020.

The good news is that TRAC has confirmed that the large number of asylum and other applications that had disappeared from the April shipment were now included in the May release. The bad news is that EOIR did not fix the underlying problem. Yet again, thousands of records that had been present in the April shipment were now missing. And the disappearing records from prior months, including the 1,507 missing asylum and other application for relief that TRAC first wrote about back last fall, continued to be missing from this latest release.

Even setting aside the issue of missing records, the persisting problem of computer processing malfunctions remains very troubling. Fixing one computer processing glitch after another does not address this larger systemic problem. Why do basic programming errors that lead to countless additional data errors keep reoccurring month after month in data and reports the agency publishes? Why aren't these caught earlier and corrected before any data and statistics are released? The agency has yet to address these questions.

EOIR Director McHenry Responds

At the same time we published our June 3 report, we wrote a third letter to EOIR Director McHenry expressing our concern and seeking a commitment from him to take the steps needed to address these problems. We assured Director McHenry again that we would be more than happy to work cooperatively with the agency to help them better ensure that going forward the public is provided with more accurate and reliable data about the Immigration Court's operations.

This Monday we received a response from Director McHenry. His response is available here. Rather than addressing the real issues concerning the agency's continuing data management problems, Director McHenry attacked our motives for alleging that the agency had any problems and further claimed that TRAC knew our statements to be untrue but had made them anyway.

Director McHenry also falsely alleged that TRAC wanted "to obtain all sensitive, identifying information" in EOIR data about particular immigrants in court proceedings. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our requests have been limited to anonymized data. Indeed, EOIR publicly posts the monthly data TRAC receives on its own website.

In fact, due to the agency's computer management problems, in March 2020 the agency posted data online which the agency itself intended to withhold. It was TRAC—not the EOIR—who uncovered this mistake and alerted agency officials.

Why did the EOIR post data online that it intended to withhold? Again it was the same underlying problem: deficiencies in EOIR data management processes mistakenly allowed the public posting of information on tens of thousands of immigrants the agency had sought to redact. Once again basic checks were not in place to verify that their programs had functioned properly so no one at the agency had caught these mistakes before the data was distributed.

What Comes Next?

TRAC has been asked to refer any future issues to EOIR Chief Management Officer Kate Sheehey. TRAC's co-director had an initial phone conversation with her last Friday, June 12. TRAC asked Director Sheehey to find out why month after month more records keep permanently disappearing from EOIR's data. She has promised to look into this and provide answers. TRAC will continue to keep the public informed on any future developments."