A federal appeals court decided Wednesday that the identities of noncitizens released by the federal government from immigration jails in 2013 may be withheld from the public.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that disclosing the detainees' names would amount to an "unwarranted invasion" of their personal privacy and possibly jeopardize their safety.
"The detainees would be publicly identified as unauthorized immigrants who had previously been held in government detention, a status which carries with it the potential for stigma, harassment, discrimination, illegal detention, and even violence," Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a President Carter appointee, wrote for the court.
The Obama administration released more than 2,000 immigration detainees to save money at a time when the federal government was facing major budget cutbacks.
The government said that none of those released had serious criminal records and that all would be monitored pending proceedings on whether they should be deported.
USA Today filed a freedom of information request in 2013 and discovered that some of the immigrants released had been charged with serious crimes.
The government records, though, withheld the names of the detainees.
Edward Tuffly, the treasurer of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for Border Patrol agents, went to court to try to compel the government to disclose the names of 149 noncitizens released in Arizona.
The 9th Circuit, upholding a district judge's decision, said protecting the former detainees' privacy outweighed the public interest in their names.
The names, linked to the information the government already released, would reveal some detainees' medical conditions and arrest and conviction records, the court said.
The records showed that 53% of the former Arizona detainees had no criminal convictions, the 9th Circuit said.
Of those with convictions, 87% were for minor offenses, including traffic violations and disorderly conduct, and 7% were convicted of more serious crimes, the court said.
"The rate of criminal convictions is lower among the released detainees than among adult Americans in general, and the crimes previously committed by the few with a prior record are far less serious," Reinhardt wrote.