TUCSON -- Local law enforcement officials detained more than 800 U.S. citizens at the request of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over a four-year period, according to an analysis of ICE statistics released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse on Wednesday.
These Americans were inadvertently caught up among the nearly 1 million requests for immigration holds that ICE issued from fiscal year 2008 to 2012. An immigration hold or detainer is a notice that federal agents give to local authorities to hold a person for up to 48 hours. This gives immigration agents time to make contact with suspected non-U.S. citizens to determine whether they should be removed.
In the past, ICE officials have said the agency didn’t keep data on U.S. citizens mistakenly put in immigration detention. But the TRAC report shows 834 Americans — most without criminal records — may have been illegally detained, according to ICE's data. It’s unclear whether the detainers were lifted or what happened after the 48-hour hold. ICE did not include that information in the data they gave TRAC.
Immigrant rights activists blasted the Obama administration after the report’s release.
Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the numbers show that the Department of Homeland Security lacks a standard of proof for issuing detainers.
"The unconstitutional detention of citizens is symptomatic of an 'arrest first, investigate later' approach that casts all immigrants under a cloud of suspicion,” Newman said in a written statement.
ICE officials called the report misguided, incomplete and not a true representation of what is happening. Officials said they could not release more complete data until they finished reviewing the TRAC report.
TRAC’s report said it had requested more information from ICE officials who refused to give specifics.
In addition, the TRAC report shows that about two out of three detainers issued by immigration agents targeted individuals who did not have any criminal convictions — a departure from the agency’s stance that their priority is to target the “worst of the worst” individuals who are in the country illegally.
About 8.6% of the charges were classified as serious offenses, according to the report.
Los Angeles led the nation in the most immigration holds, with 37,000. Maricopa County came in second with nearly 30,500, according to the data. In both regions, most of those detained had no criminal record.
Immigration officials pointed to their own analysis for fiscal year 2012, when about 55% of the people removed from the nation had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.
An immigration hold or detainer is often triggered when a local law enforcement agency books a person into jail and sends his or her fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to check for a criminal record. The fingerprints are simultaneously passed to ICE to check against its databases. If the individual is flagged by ICE, immigration officials may request that the local agency hold him or her up to 48 hours so that immigration officials can determine whether the person should be removed from the country.
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said TRAC’s conclusions are based on statistics that predate the agency's reformation of its practices -- including new standards for detainers that took effect Dec. 21.
Specific changes to the detainers include a new form that local authorities are to give the detainee. It includes a phone number to call if he or she is a victim of a crime or a U.S. citizen.
“This guidance limits the use of detainers to individuals who meet the agency’s enforcement priorities and restricts the use of detainers against individuals arrested for minor misdemeanor offenses such as traffic offenses and other petty crimes, helping to ensure that available resources are focused on apprehending convicted felons, repeat offenders and other ICE priorities,” Christensen said in a written statement.