Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan says the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has been unresponsive to his inquiries about raids conducted in his home state. So the Democratic lawmaker was forced to resort to somewhat desperate measures.
Pocan stood outside ICE headquarters Wednesday morning in Washington, passing out fliers to employees as they headed into work that read in bold red type: “MISSING: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FOIA REQUEST?”
Pocan had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct.12 to request records related to ICE arrests of 83 individuals in Wisconsin last September. Four months later, ICE still has not complied with the request, he said.
As passersby approached ICE’s offices Wednesday morning, Pocan asked if they worked there and could post the flier inside on any message boards or by a water cooler or coffee maker.
Watch: Democrat Mark Pocan hands out ‘missing’ fliers for FOIA request outside ICE headquarters
“We just want to post it like where you have lost cats and stuff,” Pocan told one ICE employee.
Most people ignored Pocan — who for the most part did not identify himself as a member of Congress — as he tried to hand them one of the fliers. He was treated much like nonprofit and political action committee workers who post up in busy areas of Washington to solicit money from passersby — with barely a passing glance.
Some ICE employees did take a flier, and a few stopped to hear his reasons for passing it out. Pocan noted he was hoping that someone in the FOIA office or even the director of the agency would see it and help speed up the response.
“One gentleman said he’d leave it in the bathroom for us,” he said. “So hopefully someone will find it.”
‘No offenses, whatsoever’
Pocan’s FOIA request asks ICE to provide a list of criminal offenses for the 83 detainees.
“A press release went out listing four people’s offenses — and those were folks that very clearly should be deported,” he said. “But there was nothing about the other 79 people. What we’ve heard from a lot of people in the community, family members and attorneys is that many of them had no offenses, whatsoever.”
The FOIA request also seeks documentation of contact ICE made with local law enforcement before and after the raids. Many of the arrests were made in Pocan’s district that surrounds the state capitol of Madison, with 20 occurring in Dane County.
ICE did not appear to follow normal protocols for contacting local law enforcement. The assistant chief of police in Madison is supposed to get a heads-up call that he did not receive, Pocan said.
Rather, the week before the raids, ICE called the Dane County sheriff and asked who runs the 911 dispatch center. The sheriff asked if something was about to happen, and they said no, they were just updating their records, Pocan said.
“So instead of following the proper channels, they just left a message at dispatch,” he said. “Law enforcement needs to know when they’re coming in because if people come out with guns and a car, people might call the police, and they need to know what’s happening.”
Pocan filed the FOIA request after trying other channels of communication — including a meeting with ICE officials in his office — that, he said, did not produce the requested information. Normally a member of Congress would not have to submit a FOIA request to obtain information from a federal agency, and this is the first time Pocan has had to send one in his six years in office.
An ICE official said the agency has provided Pocan with “an interim response” and continues to be responsive to his “multiple letters, emails, phone calls, and visits to ICE headquarters.”
“To date, we have issued two official letters of response to his original October 2018 letter,” the official said, requesting anonymity because it would be inappropriate to publicly discuss an individual’s FOIA request.
Next step is suing
Pocan said those two letters were requests for extensions that he granted.
“And then when they asked for another one, we said, ‘No, we’ve been very patient,’” he said. “I’ve been patient, but this is cheaper than hiring a lawyer, although that will be the next step. We’re just going to keep making every effort to get the information.”
Pocan, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he would prefer not to have to sue for the information, noting, “I just hate to waste ICE resources like the president is wasting ICE resources.”
The congressman’s concern over the Wisconsin raids play into larger worries of House Democrats that ICE is targeting undocumented immigrants who have been productive members of society and have never committed any crimes.
Democratic appropriators sought to put a cap on the number of ICE detention beds that could be used for immigrants detained in the interior of the U.S. (versus at the border) in the fiscal 2019 appropriations package that Congress is expected to vote on this week, but Republicans balked at the request. Ultimately, the overall number of ICE detention beds was reduced for fiscal 2019, but Democrats did not get the cap they requested.
“We’re told that ICE is going after people like MS-13, and instead they’re going after people who happen to live in buildings where they’re looking for people, and we just can’t get any information,” Pocan said.
Pocan said he won’t decide whether to support the appropriations deal until he sees the legislative text, which is still being drafted. He appears open to accepting the detention bed compromise with the understanding Democrats can seek to lower the number further for fiscal 2020 and bring administration officials in for questioning if they spend more money on detention that authorized by Congress.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that ICE can go back to their focus, which is domestic terrorism,” Pocan said. “And instead, if they’re arresting people in my district who have no offenses, we need to know that because that seems to be off mission from the White House.”