[We have invited Brad Houston, City Records Officer, City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to contribute to the blog with his thoughts about the proposed destruction of ICE records. We invite further conversation in the comments to his posts and at our Twitter account. This is the final post.]
By Brad Houston
The Human Rights Angle
Still with us? Congratulations on getting this far. Your reward for getting to the end of this series is likely the most controversial angle from which to examine this issue, plus the promised “TL;DR” section. You’re welcome!
I said two angles in the first post—so where’d this third one come from? Well, I’m least qualified to talk about this part of it, so I didn’t want to necessarily include it as a main plank of this post. But I did want to at least address it a little bit. The “soft” part of this angle is the question of “whose story gets told by the Archives”, and questions the assumption made by the appraiser that “major activities of federal officials” are the only ones worth archiving. As has been discussed at great length in the archival literature, the question of whether to document the high-level functions of government or the quotidian effect that government has on everyday people is very much an open one. The former has long been the default position of most national archival agencies, including NARA, and you can see that in the record groups and appraisal decisions that NARS/NARA has been making since the 1930s. The latter happens more sporadically, and primarily as part of managing vital records of the State, but it DOES happen.
As Splinter notes, Alien Registration Files, to take a relevant example, are already marked as permanent by NARA because they serve as “the primary documentation for most of our government’s immigration processes”. I don’t know enough about these files to say for sure, but it seems plausible that some of the information in the ICE files under scrutiny makes its way to this primary documentation. Is that enough? Should these records be preserved as a way of further providing records as “evidence of the interaction between the people and the federal government”, as Stacy Wood suggested to Splinter? I would suggest that NARA’s mission, for better or worse, dictates their answer to these questions in their appraisal decisions. In which case, attacking individual scheduling choices seems less efficacious than working to refocus NARA’s emphases on a policy level.
The second angle is a bit more dangerous, and that is the question of these records as long-term Truth and Reconciliation-type records. In other words, under the current administrative and legal regime, NARA and ICE believe they are within an acceptable legal framework to destroy these records after 20 years, since there is not likely to be widespread research interest in any particular case. If, however, a president or Congress is elected in 2032, say, who creates policy to dismantle ICE and/or provide redress to victims of systemic abuse in its detention centers, that calculus about the long-term value of these individual case files changes drastically. In that case, the hypothetical commission investigating abuses would likely lament the fact that records from 1999 were destroyed in 2019 following the approved retention schedule.
Having said that, there is no reasonable expectation that NARA can provide retention guidance based on that hypothetical, nor that ICE would follow any guidance so proffered. So this use case might be a case where future Commissions will need to rely on either records requested and saved for particular cases, or hope that the reports are, in fact, accurate enough to make a proper accounting.
Whew! That’s over 2500 words of rambling on this topic, and I could probably write 1000 more easily. Which sort of speaks to my overall point—this isn’t an issue that can be readily summarized or boiled down to a press release. There are all sorts of records management considerations that need to be taken into account to provide all of the necessary context behind the ICE request to destroy these records, and I just don’t think “we want to cover up evidence of our wrongdoing” is necessarily the primary driver. (I will concede that it may be *a* driver.) Frankly, I have a decade plus of records management experience, and I am only about 80% confident that I have explained this right even in this enormous post (or, more likely, series of posts, depending on how the blog runners edit this :). The federal government is an enormously complicated beast, and I have at best a sub-dermal understanding of its operations.
But that’s the point, innit? I don’t think that we, as archivists and records managers, can reasonably assume that discussion of these issues in “mainstream” venues, particularly political-type venues, are fully informed on the situation. There is generally just a lot of misunderstanding in the public sphere about what records management is supposed to do and why this kind of request is much more likely to be a case of “we need to clear out our storage areas” than “we are nefariously destroying records of historical value”. Stories like this tell me that the profession as a whole needs to do more work educating the public about not just the value of records with archival value, but about the process of appraising those records, and why not everything that institutions are creating needs to stay around forever and ever.
Yes, archivists, this means that as ambassadors to the public in a way not always possible for pure RMs, you’re going to have to learn more about records management, and that need is only going to grow. Sorry. I promise, however, that it is not as bad as it looks, and you will even get the chance to learn more about how records get from point A to point Z in the first place. Knowing more about that is going to help us talk to non-experts, and (hopefully) cut down on the alarmism a bit.
And yes, if there IS a use case for these records in year 21 after they’ve closed, or if there’s otherwise something about retention that you think should be brought to NARA’s attention, of course you should provide public comment—that’s why the public comment period is there. But reflexive complaining about destruction of public records, as much of this genre of release seems to be, does not help anyone.
[See Part One here!]
[See Part Two here!]