By Joseph W. McQuaid
MANCHESTER, N.H. – When Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced nationally that it had arrested and was holding many illegal immigrants, New Hampshire’s statewide newspaper naturally wanted to know the identities of those arrested and details of the arrests made in the Granite State.
We were nonplussed by the government’s response: No. We don’t like to sue our government, especially for information we believe the public is entitled to.
We were further astounded by the court’s ruling and its rationale. The ruling seems to say that people who enter the country illegally and commit further crimes here are entitled to a level of privacy that is greater than that accorded citizens.
It ought to go without saying that the public has a general right to know the identities of people arrested by the federal government, except in cases when the government can prove in court that there is a pressing national security justification for keeping the names secret. Instead, the government can make secret arrests as a matter of general policy.
ICE did exactly that here in 2011. The agency, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, arrested six people it said were convicted criminal aliens. It issued a press release boasting of the arrests. But it refused to release the names.
This newspaper sued to get the names, and on April 18 a federal judge ruled that the government did not have to release them. That is disappointing and disconcerting.
“The Union Leader does not argue that the disclosure of the names and addresses of arrestees would directly reveal anything about the way in which the government is conducting Operation Cross Check,” U.S. District Court Judge Paul Barbadoro wrote in his ruling dismissing the newspaper’s lawsuit. “Instead, it argues that the public interest would be served if the information is disclosed because the public might be able to use the names and addresses to discover additional relevant information.
“I am not persuaded by this ‘derivative use’ argument because the Supreme Court has recognized that such arguments must be based on more than ‘(m)ere speculation about hypothetical public benefits,’” Barbadoro said in his 17-page decision.
The rationale that the information doesn’t reflect on the way a government department does its job defies logic. The identities of those arrested is really the only way in which we can check to see if the arrests were proper and correct and what were the results of these arrests.
“I believe secret arrests to be dangerously un-American,” our attorney, Greg Sullivan, said in an email after the decision. “Unfortunately, all of the federal judges who have dealt with arrests by ICE do not share this opinion.”
Dangerously un-American is right.
When the government can use arrests as political propaganda and withhold the names of those arrested, preventing the people from scrutinizing the propaganda, an important check on the power of the state has been erased.
We are now reviewing where we may go from here.
Joseph W. McQuaid is publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader and the New Hampshire Sunday News.