U.S. Justice Department in Washington
U.S. Justice Department in Washington (Michael A. Scarcella/ ALM Media)

The same day a federal judge in Atlanta directed that court records be made electronically available to the public in a nationally-watched immigration case over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, government lawyers asked to bar public access to the program’s policy manual.

After U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen ordered lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation to produce the National Standard Operating Procedures for the DACA program—they did so, but under provisional seal.

Government lawyers then asked the judge to bar the public from accessing or viewing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) manual for the DACA program—which provides administrative relief from deportation to eligible immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their undocumented parents.

Cohen ordered the Justice Department to produce the manual during litigation over the government’s May decision to summarily and without notice revoke the DACA status of Jessica Colotl, a paralegal with Atlanta’s Kuck Immigration Partners. Colotl was brought to the U.S. when she was 11, grew up in metro Atlanta and graduated from Kennesaw State University. She became a flashpoint for the nation’s ongoing political struggle over immigration after a traffic stop by campus police in 2010 prompted federal immigration authorities to incarcerate the college student in a federal detention center and initiate deportation proceedings.

Her legal battle to remain in the U.S. inspired President Barack Obama’s creation of the DACA program after Congress failed to pass the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act that would have provided a pathway to U.S. citizenship for Colotl and others like her who were raised in the U.S. and have always considered it their home.

On June 12, Cohen issued an injunction halting the Trump administration, at least temporarily, from revoking Colotl’s immigrant status under DACA and directed the government to restore her work authorization permit, which was also revoked. Cohen also directed the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to reconsider the decision to terminate Colotl’s status and re-adjudicate her DACA renewal application in according with the SOP manual.

In that order, Cohen said that government failed to follow its own procedural guidelines prior to terminating Colotl’s status and “presented no evidence” which justified that failure. He said the injunction would remain until the government submits sufficient proof that it has followed all relevant procedures.

Justice Department lawyers claim that “good cause” exists to prevent public access to the DACA policy manual—which sets out specific procedures for who will be approved and how that approval may be rescinded—because “there may be privileged or law enforcement sensitive information that should not be generally shared with the public.”

If portions deemed too sensitive for public access were redacted, it might prevent the court “from obtaining a full appreciation of the nuances of the processes in question in this matter.”

Government attorneys also argued “The public has no interest in the largely technical nature of the information in question, and the privacy and security interests inherent in this information warrant maintaining its confidentiality.”

Colotl’s lawyers disagreed, renewing a request that the government be required to produce the entire document “and not only excerpts it believes support its position.”

The paralegal’s lawyers—including Charles Kuck in Atlanta and Katrina Eiland and Jennifer Chang Newell of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project in San Francisco—countered that the government’s own submissions in the suit failed to demonstrate that it complied with procedures specifically set out in the policy manual that required Colotl be given notice that her status was being terminated and given an opportunity to respond before that termination became final.

Kuck said the manual should be publicly available. “We shouldn’t be hiding things from the public, particularly as it pertains to cases they may be directly involved in,” he said. “It’s not a game.”