ICE Cold: US Citizens Getting Caught in Immigration Dragnet

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The Obama administration has taken plenty of heat in the past couple of years for its record number of deportations. A new report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, though, highlights a different (albeit related) problem: US citizens are getting snagged in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement dragnet, too.

Of the nearly 1 million people for whom ICE issued detainers (a.k.a. immigration holds) from fiscal year 2008 to FY 2012, 834 were US citizens. As the above chart shows, that’s right on par with the number of Korean, Belizean, Iranian, and Thai citizens that the government asked local law enforcement to hold after arrests. Those numbers are nowhere near those of, say, Mexican citizens (No. 1 at more than 690,000 detainers), but, as the TRAC report noted: “It is illegal for DHS to detain US citizens, and to do so is a significant violation of their constitutional rights.”

Given the administration’s stated focus on criminal offenders (PDF), it seems odd that only 23 percent of those who received ICE holds had a criminal record, and that just 9 percent had committed what the agency calls Level 1 crimes—a definition broad enough to include “serious” offenses like traffic violations and marijuana possession.

ICE holds by crime

ICE did change its policy (PDF) in December, restricting the use of detainers on people arrested for small-time misdemeanors, and the White House’s draft immigration bill proposes to give judges more discretion when it comes to deporting such offenders. Still, for an unpopular agency already dealing with its union members’ acrimonious lawsuit against the federal government and with a recent USA Today story that detailed desperate ICE efforts to reach deportation quotas, detaining Americans isn’t helping its image.

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