SOUTH BEND — A conservative Washington-based group has sued the Mayor Pete Buttigieg administration and South Bend Common Council, alleging the city has violated Indiana’s public records law by refusing to disclose staff emails related to a program that provides identification cards to undocumented immigrants.
The suit, filed this week in St. Joseph Circuit Court by Judicial Watch, details four denied records requests that the organization filed with the city. The requests sought emails exchanged between various city officials and La Casa de Amistad, the nonprofit Latino advocacy group that issues the cards.
La Casa in December 2016 began issuing the community resident card, branded as “SB ID,” to undocumented immigrants to help them conduct routine daily activities, such as picking up children from school or day care, providing identification to police, obtaining college transcripts, library cards and prescriptions, and clearing background checks needed to volunteer at schools.
More than two years later, 2,153 people have the South Bend card, and 1,035 people carry a Goshen ID card, also issued by La Casa, said Sam Centellas, La Casa’s executive director.
“One of the good telltale signs that the program has worked well is that people are renewing their cards.” Centellas said, “and that’s when we get to hear these impact stories about how they’ve been able to feel like a more connected part of the city by having this ID.”
New York and Los Angeles were among the first cities to issue resident cards to undocumented immigrants, and the request for a South Bend card first came to Common Council members from parishioners at St. Adalbert Catholic Church. Buttigieg embraced the idea and the council approved $18,000 in the 2016 city budget to pay for the program.
But by the end of 2016, the city’s legal team had decided that cardholders’ identities might be disclosable under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act if the city, a public entity, issued the cards, so La Casa agreed to do it instead, Centellas said.
“The program is run, operated and maintained by La Casa, so the data is all ours and there’s been no government dollars used in this,” Centellas said. “Other municipalities have seen that as a way to say, ‘This is a great way to run a program without potentially making vulnerable people more vulnerable.’ ”
After some national media coverage, Centellas said, at least a dozen cities have contacted La Casa and sought advice on how to develop ID card programs, including Northfield, Minn., Wabash County, Ind., Columbus, Ohio, Greensboro, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., Austin, Texas, and Indianapolis.
The lawsuit alleges that Judicial Watch has repeatedly requested the emails, refining its requests as the city imposed more requirements. For example, the suit alleges the city required that requests for emails between city staff and La Casa employees also include the La Casa employees’ email addresses, which is “not supported by APRA or relevant case law.”