In August 2017, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency began planning a series of events for Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed annually from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 and which celebrates the achievements of the sort of people ICE now regularly arranges to have detained.
That some form of celebration happened last year, involving food from the “Hispanic diaspora” and salsa music and a panel discussion, is about all we can say for sure. We know, too, that planners were mindful of how a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at ICE might be seen, taking care to avoid any semblance of tokenism.
But beyond those things, we’re pretty much in the dark. In documents released by ICE in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Government Accountability Project, nearly everything of note was covered in big red redactions, photos included.
One of the planned events in Washington was a panel discussion in which people were given the opportunity to “share their experiences of being a minority in law enforcement, reveal various challenges they face and reflect on what Hispanic History Month means to them.” The result of this discussion can still be found on ICE’s website here. In the video, a moderator and three panelists sit stiffly on uncomfortable-looking chairs, the mise-en-scène suggesting nothing so much as a hostage crisis on a public access television show.
In preparing for the event, one employee ― whose name is redacted but whose title is given as “Section Chief / Visual Communication” in ICE’s Office of Public Affairs ― questioned the wisdom of having the same woman who moderated ICE’s Women’s History Month panel also moderate the Hispanic Heritage Month panel.
“That’s getting close to making her a token representative for both,” the employee wrote. “Just a thought.” The current section chief of visual communication is Michael Johnson, and according to LinkedIn, he started in that role in 2015.
But the employee was mistaken:
Fortunately for ICE, it turns out that the woman in question — presumably Barbara Gonzalez, the acting assistant director of the office created by the Trump administration to help “victims of crimes committed by removable aliens” — was actually not there on the day of the Women’s History Month panel. She could take on that next diversity panel free of fears of tokenism.
Here’s what an internal memo suggested for the eventual makeup of the panel:
The ICE HQ leadership member appears to have been Waldemar Rodriguez, the associate director for the Office of Professional Responsibility. The rest of the panel consisted of Kenneth Padilla, the deputy principal legal adviser for field legal operations, and Angela Flores, a FOIA paralegal specialist. For some reason, ICE did not fill out the panel with agents from the suggested departments.
Later, after video of the panel discussion went up online, one person on the email exchange chimed in with a concern: “I would consider changing the thumbnails for the videos — not sure they fit with the panel discussion.”
It’s not clear what the original thumbnail pictures were — the earliest archive of the page was created on Oct. 8, 2017, several days after the change — although another person followed up to add that, besides changing the thumbnails, it was “decided to remove the image and tweak the location of the text.” It’s not entirely clear how the picture they ultimately chose (see below) “fit with the panel discussion,” either.
Separately, someone also wrote up a recap of the New York office’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration:
On Oct. 20, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) New York employees celebrated National Hispanic Heritage Month with a luncheon coordinated by NY’s National Fugitive Operations Program. Employees discussed a variety of topics related to their own family lineage, and the subtle differences in the Hispanic diaspora’s cuisine, and took time to acknowledge those still suffering in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as a result of Hurricane Maria, and those in Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela impacted [by] earthquakes.
The internal memo included photos of Enforcement and Removal Operations employees participating in the National Fugitive Operations Program-led event, during which they “enjoyed a tremendous self-serve Spanish and Caribbean buffet that included arroz con gandules, arroz blanco, chicken, pasteles, pernil, potato salad, and flan, while the sweet sounds of salsa played lightly in the background.”
Here’s what it looked like, give or take a red box:
We assume the photos depict ICE employees enjoying a lively, tasteful and not-at-all-ghoulish celebration of Hispanic culture. The excessive redactions make it impossible to be sure.
In its response to the Government Accountability Project’s FOIA request, ICE made no attempt to clarify the gratuitous redactions in both the photos and the emails. The only explanation for the redactions were the (b)(6) and (b)(7)(c) markings, which you can see in the email below (and, if you zoom in very closely, in the corners of the photos).
The first code, (b)(6), is used to note anything that might include “personnel and medical files and similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The second code, (b)(7)(c), refers to “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes” that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” What ICE was doing during its Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations that would be related to law enforcement at all remains unclear.
We’ve reached out to ICE for clarification on the redactions and will update if and when we hear back. In the meantime, if you were at an ICE Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, feel free to send us an email here. We’d love to hear from you.
Read the full FOIA release below.