Tracking TRAC: Paeans and Pans for the Syracuse University Clearinghouse

By Dan Cadman on January 28, 2014

There is much to commend about Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Despite candidate Barack Obama's promise that his presidency would be the most transparent in American history, in fact the Obama-Biden administration has been a model of opacity, rivaling old Soviet Central Committee paranoia in its obsession with obscuring from public view executive branch information and data that have been published routinely for decades — even during the dark old days of the Bush-Cheney years that our current president and vice president have so frequently disparaged.

This has certainly been the case with immigration statistics across the board, from benefit-granting to law enforcement activities. Under President Obama, statistics reflecting approvals and denials in key immigration benefits have become nigh unto impossible to obtain; likewise with immigration enforcement activities.

Worse, the administration has played fast and loose with the way statistics are gathered and presented in its Oz-like efforts to package what they wish the American people to believe, however at odds the packaging is with on-the-ground realities. ("Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!") Faux deportation statistics are a prime example of the manipulation. For details, see Jessica Vaughan's excellent pieces on this subject, including "Deportation Numbers Unwrapped" and "Deportation Lies Continue".

For this reason, the American public, and not a few think tanks and academicians, owe a debt of gratitude to TRAC for shining a light on otherwise unavailable information on the activities of our government in a wide range of agencies, including the federal courts, FBI, IRS, DEA, ATF and, not least, those Homeland Security agencies that administer and enforce our immigration and citizenship laws. In pursuit of its aim of extracting key statistical data from an increasingly obstreperous executive branch it shows a zeal and a willingness to effectively use the Freedom of Information Act and other legal avenues that individuals and small organizations sometimes lack the will, resources, or patience to apply.

If I have a complaint about TRAC it is that its reports sometimes show an ineluctable tendency toward editorializing, which reflects a liberal bias toward all things immigration. TRAC is at its best when it reports just the facts, and at its weakest when it attempts to extrapolate from the data (which, where immigration matters are concerned, are obtuse at the best of times) in ways that show its bias and at the same time can reveal a lack of expert knowledge or even naiveté in the way the immigration system functions.

Two recent reports from TRAC exemplify its work in the immigration and citizenship arena, and they reflect its strengths and weaknesses, respectively: "Decline in Naturalization Application Lawsuits", and "Surprising Variability in Detainer Trends by Gender, Nationality: Differences Also Observed by ICE Office, State and Facility".

The first report, "Decline in Naturalization Application Lawsuits", provides, without extraneous remarks or extrapolation, a narrative, combined with diagrammatics that visually show the rises and drops in lawsuits by aliens seeking to naturalize by geographic area, timeframes, etc.

The report's most singular — indeed astounding — piece of information is that, nationwide, lawsuits from naturalization applicants are down over 50 percent from five years ago. It may be, though, that the reason the report is provided without any attempt to contextualize it is because, at least to my way of thinking, there is no need to put a fine point on the reasons for the drop in lawsuits: when virtually no benefit is denied, there is no reason to sue. I find this trend alarming. It suggests an increasing timidity on the part of examiners to carefully scrutinize, and reject when appropriate, petitions by candidates who should not be permitted the privilege of American citizenship.

The second report, "Surprising Variability in Detainer Trends by Gender, Nationality: Differences Also Observed by ICE Office, State and Facility", contains a wealth of data that, as the report notes, was painstakingly gathered over the course of years, despite steadfast attempts to withhold the information. Unfortunately, it is marred by a certain judgmental attitude that shines through portions of the narrative, which is consistent with prior TRAC reports on detainers filed by ICE. For instance, despite the fact that, overall, the number of ICE detainers has dropped by nearly a quarter, the very title of the report implies that there is something inherently wrong in variability of detainer trends. I disagree. There are many valid reasons for such variability. By way of example, the report notes that filings of detainers have actually risen for select nationalities (Iran, up 12 percent; Laos, up 12 percent; Trinidad and Tobago, up 11 percent; and Haiti, up 9 percent). But when one examines the actual numbers, they are so statistically insignificant that even a variation of four or five detainers changes the percentages substantially.

It is also no surprise that gender plays a role in whether or not detainers are filed. Women are much less likely to have detainers filed against them; among other reasons, because they are less likely to be taken into custody by local police — a major trigger event causing detainers to be filed. What is more, women are much more likely to be caregivers for minors — a factor that plays a large role in the thinking of immigration enforcement officers when deciding whether to file detainers.

While it's beyond the scope of this blog to outline the many other weak points in TRAC's analysis of the data gathered, there is one last statement worth mentioning, one that evidences the lack of operational understanding I mentioned earlier. In the segment titled "ICE Area of Responsibility", we find this statement: "The Headquarters AOR dropped even more and was down 84 percent. It is not clear what types of cases get placed under the jurisdiction of headquarters so it is hard to know what this decline represents." The answer is simple. The Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC), which is integral to the Secure Communities program, is the first recipient of fingerprint matches arising from police arrests compared against Homeland Security fingerprint caches. As a result, it is often LESC technicians who file detainers with the police to ensure that they are placed in a timely manner. Although the LESC is physically located in Vermont, it is an arm of the ICE headquarters office.

Notwithstanding the TRAC authors' take on ICE filing of detainers nationwide, the most significant — and disturbing — statistic they have presented is that detainers have dropped by 23 percent from October 2011 to August 2013, a span of less than two federal fiscal years. As with the government's true deportation numbers, it shows conclusively that immigration law enforcement is seriously on the wane in the United States at the very time that open-borders advocates are pushing for an amnesty for millions of aliens illegally in the country. Legalizing their status would simply set the clock back to zero to start a new headcount as the next wave arrives.