Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Immigration bureaucrats do not understand the word "undocumented"

No, I am not making this up.  It’s official.  I have the government email in my hands.

Ever since a new wave of illegal immigration began washing up at our country’s southern border this summer—which happened right about the time I joined southern Arizona’s PowerTalk 1210—reporters have been trying to get more information about it.  I don’t know whether other journalists have given up, but I haven’t.  In wrestling with the government on this info quest, I have found the task to be a bit like trying to deal with an aloof and distant parent who’s just a little bit miffed at you.  Or maybe more than a little bit. 

Strike that—as annoyed as my late mother sometimes got at me, she never at any point invited me to call and email her, and then refused to answer the calls or emails.

In our last episode, after Customs and Border Patrol turned down my FOIA request for immigration info on the grounds that it was “too broad,” I did three things.  One, I filed an appeal.  Two, I filed forty (40) follow-up Freedom of Information Act requests.  Three, after the CBP rejection letter gave me a phone number to call with questions and invited me to call it, I did so, twice, leaving voice mail messages with both offices that the number’s voice mail tree made available.

To date, there has been no reply to those phone calls.  (You may recall from my radio program that when I first heard the voice mail message inviting me to leave a message, I laughed out loud.  This is why).  Some (not all) of my new FOIA filings did prompt acknowledgments, but none have yet resulted in answers.  But there is action, of a sort, to report on the appeal.  I just received a reply to that, and lo and behold, and it was not the simple “no means no” rejection I had expected.  Instead, the reply was very polite and, on the surface and at first glance, appeared to be helpful.  Sadly, the response turned out to be utterly useless.  But it did contain one breathtaking surprise.

The appeals officer who wrote the reply, you see, offered an explanation for why Border Patrol bureaucrats lower down the food chain had determined that my original request was “too broad.”  According to her, they “did not understand your request.”

Really?  I’m a journalist.  English is my first language.  I'm co-author of a college textbook on writing, for chrissake.  I’ve been told at times that I’m fairly verbose, but no one has ever accused me of being unclear.  Where had I gone wrong? 

Here’s her explanation:  “You used the terms ‘undocumented unaccompanied minors,’” she wrote, “‘and ‘undocumented women’ and it was not clear what you meant by the term ‘undocumented.’” 

Yes, you read that right. I have long suspected this, and perhaps you have, too.  Now it’s now official:  Your government bureaucrats do not understand the meaning of the word “undocumented” as it pertains to immigration.

Oh. My. God.  Does that not explain just absolutely everything about how our government is handling this crisis?  Or how it’s handling immigration in general?

I don’t mean to heap scorn on the lady who wrote me, though, because she did answer my email, which was unique, and she was very polite.  She uploaded some documents for me, and also provided links, that she said she hoped would be useful.  They were not, however.  The links were all to information that has been on the CPB website for weeks, which I and every other interested and competent journalist has already seen.  The additional data grids she uploaded to me provided no new information and did not address my questions.

She closed by sharing with me the phone number for the Customs and Border Patrol Public Affairs Office.  As it turns out, the number she gave me was the very first one I’d called back when I started this process two months ago.  That office had been either unable or unwilling to answer any of my questions, and had referred me to the DHS Press Office—for which it was not willing to provide a telephone number.  (Check out this story for a recap on that joyous experience.)

So, I wrote her back.  I thanked her for her response, politely pointed out these facts to her, and wrote this:

“In a nutshell, here is what I am seeking:

“This summer the Border Patrol and ICE, began encountering and handling an unusually large number of immigrant single mothers with children who had crossed into the United States illegally, and had no place to put them.  So instead of going into detention, many of these mothers with children were allowed to continue to their chosen destinations within the United States, and were instructed to report to immigration authorities on arrival.  I am trying to determine:

“1. How many immigrants were released in this manner?

“2. How many did indeed report to immigration authorities as directed?

“3. How much did ICE and/or the Border Patrol spend on transportation for these immigrants (some were sent to other cities for processing via commercial airlines)?

“4. How much, if any, money ICE and/or the Border Patrol spent on bus tickets or other aid for these immigrants?

“Previous attempts to get this information from DHS have met with utter failure (emails not answered, and phone calls not returned).  Any help you can give me in nailing this down would be most appreciated!”

Toward the end of her email, the appeals officer helpfully suggested that I file a new FOIA request “specifically describing the information you seek (and not use the term ‘undocumented’).”

Because, you know, DHS and CPB don’t understand that word.  It causes confusion, and furrowing of brows, and scratching of heads, and that sort of thing.

I just went and checked my notes.  The word “undocumented” does not appear in any of the 40 follow-up FOIA requests that I filed.  They do, however, contain the phrase, “illegal immigration.”

Care to take any bets on whether that phrase will stump the feds, too?

Stay tuned.


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©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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