A CIVIL ACTION

I’m suing the US government for its data on who’s entering the country

Obsession
Getting There
Obsession
Getting There

Who enters the United States, from where, and why? Though the government knows the answers to these questions, which are central to currently raging policy debates, it only gives that information to people and companies that pay for the privilege.

So I’m suing to get free access to the data.

My lawsuit against the Department of Commerce asks a judge to compel the release of two databases that chronicle the flow of people into the US. One contains anonymous immigrations records; the other, statistics about international air travelers. Together, they would tell us a lot about who is entering the country, and for what purpose, at a time when American border policy is under intense scrutiny.

The databases, maintained by the department’s International Trade Administration (ITA), are the only comprehensive records of people coming to the US. They don’t just tally US visitors by their origin, but also by age, residency, port of entry, visa type, and initial destination.

I first sought access to this information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in March 2015. That request was denied. Instead, the government offered to sell me five years of statistics from the two databases for $173,775. Access costs upwards of $15,000 per year of data—the more recent, the more expensive.

It’s not clear who pays that kind of money for the ITA’s data, but it would be of use to hotel chains, airlines, tourist destinations, and other companies that rely on business from international travelers. The commerce department has claimed that, because it is authorized to charge for the databases, they are exempt from FOIA requests.

That argument misinterprets public records laws and is betrayed by its own logical conclusion: All it would take for the US government to prevent the disclosure of any information would be to place a high price tag on it. That clearly contradicts the intent of FOIA, which entitles the public to access all kinds of government records.

Just because there may be a market for this information shouldn’t make it exempt from public disclosure. For instance, banks would clearly pay extraordinary fees for data about employment in the US if the Bureau of Labor Statistics ever decided to charge. That doesn’t mean the agency should erect a million-dollar paywall around its widely cited data.

The ITA’s databases are forged from the regular operations of US Customs and Border Protection. In any event, the ITA’s mission is to “create prosperity by strengthening the international competitiveness of US industry”—not to generate revenue through the sale of data products for the government.

I haven’t been able to find any other example of a US agency charging more than nominal sums for official statistics. The Government Accountability Office says it has never looked into the subject.

At a time when trade and immigration are at the forefront of public policy, and a central issue of the presidential campaign, the data I seek can add clarity. How many men aged 18 to 25 from Muslim-majority countries have actually entered the US in 2016? Foreigners from which countries are traveling to which states using investment visas?

These data can tell us, but only if you pay.

I am being represented in this lawsuit by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which elected to litigate the case pro-bono because the issues at stake could set a precedent for future public-records cases. The suit is also supported by Quartz, where I work as a reporter, and its parent company Atlantic Media.

Here is our complaint that was filed on May 19 in the US District Court for the District of Columbia:

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to US Customs and Border Protection as US Customs and Border Patrol.

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