NEW YORK (AP) -- The American Civil Liberties Union has urged a federal judge to force the U.S. government to quickly turn over documents it needs to help reform a system in which thousands of immigrants are detained for months or years.
The ACLU told U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman in a letter on Thursday that the government should be forced to follow his orders so the public can see if immigrants are subject to "prolonged" detention as their immigration statuses are reviewed.
The judge had asked for the ACLU's opinion a day after government lawyers insisted they needed 15 months to deliver 385 out of 22,000 files.
The ACLU called the government's request for a conference with the judge "a last-minute attempt by the defendants to avoid their obligations" under the judge's orders and the Freedom of Information Act.
The ACLU sued in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in 2011 seeking from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement documents it had requested two years earlier.
ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project staff attorney Michael Tan called the delay in the government response to the FOIA request "appalling." He said the ACLU hadn't received one file since the judge ordered the government to turn over in September documents both sides agreed would provide a representative sample of the detainee cases.
Tan said efforts to negotiate an agreement with the government on how many files are representative were especially difficult, with the government saying it would take seven more years to produce 100 files.
The slow pace caused the judge last week to say in an order that the government's process for releasing documents was "painstaking and riddled with further delay." He said it had stymied efforts to reform a system in which thousands of immigrant detainees, some applicants for asylum, languish in immigration jails longer than six months.
In 2009, The Associated Press conducted a computer analysis of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement database obtained through a FOIA request, finding there were 32,000 immigrants from 177 countries detained, including more than 18,000 with no criminal convictions. The analysis showed that nearly 10,000 had been in custody more than a month and that 400 of those with no criminal records had been locked up more than a year.
According to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, detained immigrants are supposed to be deported or released within about six months.
The steady increase in the number of immigrants held behind bars grew considerably after Congress in 1996 passed a pair of laws requiring immigrants who committed crimes be locked up for deportation. The numbers continued to rise after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.