The Department of Homeland Security inadvertently tipped off the Cuban government this month that some of the immigrants the agency sought to deport to the island nation had asked the U.S. for protection from persecution or torture, officials said Monday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are now scrambling to foreclose the possibility that the Cuban government could retaliate against individuals it knows sought protection here. The agency has paused its effort to deport the immigrants in question and is considering releasing them from U.S. custody.
The accidental disclosure to the Cuban government is an example of any asylum seeker’s “nightmare scenario,” said Robyn Barnard, associate director of refugee advocacy at Human Rights First.
Many immigrants who seek safety in the U.S. fear that gangs, governments, or individuals back home will find out that they did so and retaliate against them or their families. To mitigate that risk, a federal regulation generally forbids the release of personal information of people seeking asylum and other protections without sign-off by top Homeland Security officials.
“The words egregious and illegal don’t go far enough,” Barnard said. “And this is not any foreign government, but a government we have irrefutable evidence routinely detains and tortures those they suspect of being in opposition to them.”
An even larger breach of confidentiality last month led directly to the surprising disclosure to the Cuban government. Less than three weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials accidentally posted the names, birth dates, nationalities and detention locations of more than 6,000 immigrants who claimed to be fleeing torture and persecution to the agency’s website.
In early December, a Homeland Security official communicating with the Cuban government about deportation flights to the country, which recently resumed after a hiatus, “unintentionally” indicated that some of the 103 Cubans who could have been placed on a flight had been affected by the late November data dump, an ICE official told The Times.
The Homeland Security official did not name any specific individuals. But telling Cuba that some of the potential deportees had been affected by the ICE leak amounted to confirming that they had sought shelter in the U.S. Every person whose information was leaked had sought U.S. protection, and the leak was widely covered in U.S. media.
Of the 103 Cubans that Homeland Security discussed with the Cuban government, 46 were affected by the leak.
ICE is in the process of contacting the Cubans whose information was disclosed, as well as any attorneys they may have. The agency will not immediately remove them from the U.S. and will give them a chance to update their protection claims. ICE attorneys are also evaluating “what options are legally available to remedy the disclosure, including potential release from custody,” the official said.
Anwen Hughes, director of legal strategy at Human Rights First, has years of experience comforting asylum seekers who are worried that their home countries will find out about their applications.
“They come in nervous, shaking and afraid their relatives could get arrested,” Hughes said.
Hughes has long told her clients that they should feel secure that their information would be protected.
But the most recent disclosures have given her pause.
“I don’t want to say things that won’t be true,” she said. “It is important that these assurances be meaningful.”
ICE’s November disclosure of the 6,252 names had already triggered a massive effort by the agency to investigate the causes of the error and reduce the risk of retaliation against immigrants whose information was exposed.
ICE officials have begun notifying immigrants whose information was posted online. The agency will not deport immigrants whose information it mistakenly posted for at least 30 days so that immigrants can determine whether the disclosure will affect their cases.
On Thursday, a group of several members of Congress, including Reps Norma Torres (D-Pomona) and Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro), sent a letter to ICE leadership demanding answers on how the leak happened and how the agency was responding.
“We believe that ICE’s failure to comply with simple regulations to protect asylum seekers have potentially endangered the lives of these vulnerable individuals and their families and urge you to take immediate action to ensure the privacy of this and other sensitive information held by the agency,” the letter stated.
“We are deeply troubled by this news because federal law mandates that the information of people seeking asylum is to be kept confidential. Several of us frequently receive visits from individuals risking life and livelihood to help their communities thrive in the face of repressive regimes. Some of these courageous individuals go on to seek asylum in the United States — and it is unacceptable to put their information into the hands of bad actors.”
The agency mistakenly posted the data during a routine update of its website on Nov. 28. Human Rights First notified ICE officials about the mistake, and the agency quickly deleted the data from its website. The file was posted to a page where ICE regularly publishes detention statistics.
The information was up for about five hours.
“Though unintentional, this release of information is a breach of policy and the agency is investigating the incident and taking all corrective actions necessary,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement.
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