Civil rights groups file barrage of lawsuits against DHS over Trump’s travel bans

Civil rights groups file barrage of lawsuits against DHS over Trump’s travel bans
Nine American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters have filed 13 lawsuits in nine states against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), seeking documents on the implementation of executive orders targeting Muslims.

ACLU affiliates in California, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington filed suit against the federal government, claiming that neither DHS nor CBP responded to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about the implementation of President Donald Trump’s two executive orders banning nationals from specific majority-Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days.

The ACLU first submitted its FOIA requests to CBP on February 2. The law requires the government to comply with the request within 30 days. With no substantive response from the government after 10 weeks, the civil rights organization filed suit, arguing that the documents they seek are critical in holding the government accountable.

Mitra Ebadolahi, a Border Litigation Project staff attorney with the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, was not surprised, noting that CBP “has a long history of ignoring” its FOIA obligations.

“The public has a right to know how federal immigration officials have handled the implementation of the Muslim bans, especially after multiple federal courts have blocked various aspects of these executive orders,” Ebadolahi said in a statement.

The lawsuits were handled at the chapter, rather than national level, because the FOIA requests each sought “unique and local information” about how each CBP office implemented the executive orders “at specific airports and ports of entry in the midst of rapidly developing and sometimes conflicting government guidance,” the ACLU said.

The 18 FOIA requests happened after the Trump issued his first executive order, banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US. It was was restricted by several federal judges – to varying degrees – in Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and Washington. The requests were filed to discover how Trump administration officials interpreted the rulings and continued executing the Muslim ban in violation of a nationwide stay on its implementation.

“It is imperative that the public learn if federal immigration officials are blatantly defying nationwide federal court orders that block President Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban,” Ebadolahi said at the time. “To shed light on this critical issue of pressing public concern,” 50 ACLU affiliates filed FOIA requests “to expose Customs and Border Protection’s abuse of power.”

The lawsuits targets offices in Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Houston, Texas; the California cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco; Miami and Tampa in Florida; Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona.

The San Diego CBP office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“As a matter of policy, CBP does not comment on pending litigation,” spokesman Ralph DeSio told the San Diego Union-Tribune via email.

DHS also declined to comment on the lawsuits, citing the agency’s policy on pending litigation.

Trump signed the initial executive order on January 27, and it immediately took effect. Its rollout caused mass confusion, deportations and protests, as well as the filing of at least 40 lawsuits in 17 states. On February 3, a federal judge in Washington state issued a nationwide temporary restraining order against the enforcement of the executive order.

Although the president and his administration had vowed to appeal the rulings, they instead decided to issue a revised version of the executive order. Trump signed the second 90-day travel ban on March 6, affecting nationals from six majority-Muslim countries, but it was not set to go into effect until March 16. However, the second executive order was also blocked by several federal judges, and it was never implemented.

The Trump administration appealed the nationwide stay which a district judge in Hawaii extended indefinitely at the end of March. The documents sought in the FOIA requests could be used as evidence as that case proceeds.

“It is always possible that if the case ends up back in the district court, the documents could be used depending on what they reveal," Ebadolahi said.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, is set to hear the administration’s appeal on May 8.