Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ombudsman's office shreds forms filed by aliens

MORE than 20,000 documents that were the original records in the census of aliens conducted by Ombudsman Pamela Brown’s office in Dec. 2009 were destroyed, Variety learned yesterday.

Variety obtained a copy of the affidavit submitted by Brown to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

She said the forms were shredded “since [they] only served a data collection function.”

Brown’s office was tasked to count all aliens present in the CNMI and obtain pertinent data to answer specific questions in the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, which extended federal immigration law to the islands.

The CNRA also required the Department of the Interior to report to the U.S. Congress within 180 days on the number of aliens in the CNMI and to make recommendations regarding their future status.

The Fitial administration has been seeking the original forms on which the 20,859 aliens registered with the ombudsman’s office.

A Freedom of Information Act request was filed by the administration in May 2010, shortly after the Interior report came out.

Brown’s affidavit stated that all the documents were shredded in late Dec. 2009 or early Jan. 2010 when the census was completed.

No information about the destruction of all of these forms was released by Interior until long after a complaint was filed in federal court seeking the documents, Variety learned.

It also learned that it was only when the U.S. Attorney’s Office became involved was the Fitial administration notified that the documents it sought no longer existed.

The administration declined to comment, but sources in the legal community familiar with this issue said the destruction of the original documents means that no alien who registered during the census can prove by means of that registration that he or she was in the commonwealth at the time of the census.

“All of the names and other identifying data are now gone. All that is left is the spreadsheet data counting how many aliens fall into various categories — male/female, legal/illegal, country of origin, and similar classifications,” sources said.

The destruction of the original documents also means that there is no way to verify any of the summary information that the ombudsman collected.

“Without the original forms to compare against the summary data, no one can be sure that what the ombudsman did was correct,” sources said.

The Fitial administration earlier complained that the ombudsman’s work was faulty.

It sought the documents to enable analyses that would determine the quality of the ombudsman’s work.

Lawyers who represent aliens were also critical of the ombudsman’s methodology in carrying out the census, Variety was told.

They argued that by using paper forms signed by individuals, there could be possible immigration consequences.

Any alien admitted to the United States on a temporary basis who provides false information or false documentation to a federal official may be subject to deportation, sources said.

For example, the census forms asked aliens when they arrived in the commonwealth, whether they were in legal or illegal status, what employment they held, and similar information.

Lawyers feared that aliens who might rely on bad advice from lay advisers could provide incorrect information on the census form.

With those original forms in hand, any incorrect or false information would be readily discernible by either the federal or commonwealth government.

Federal law prohibits the destruction of federal records.

The ombudsman’s census was done using federal funds and, for this reason, all of the documents generated during the census are federal records, Variety learned.

Interior’s own regulations require permission for document destruction. The U.S. Census Bureau keeps all original census records.

Variety sought Brown’s comments but she was off-island yesterday.

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