Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times published a deeply disturbing investigative piece detailing how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained nearly 1,500 American citizens since 2012. The length of time these citizens were kept in ICE custody ranges from one day to more than three years. The story, from reporters Paige St. John and Joel Rubin, offers another reminder that ICE is a rogue agency in need of accountability, oversight, and reform.
Read excerpts of the Los Angeles Times story, “ICE held an American man in custody for 1,273 days. He’s not the only one who had to prove his citizenship” below, with the full version available online here.
“Immigration officers in the United States operate under a cardinal rule: Keep your hands off Americans.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents repeatedly target U.S. citizens for deportation by mistake, making wrongful arrests based on incomplete government records, bad data and lax investigations, according to a Times review of federal lawsuits, internal ICE documents and interviews.
Since 2012, ICE has released from its custody more than 1,480 people after investigating their citizenship claims, according to agency figures. And a Times review of Department of Justice records and interviews with immigration attorneys uncovered hundreds of additional cases in the country’s immigration courts in which people were forced to prove they are Americans and sometimes spent months or even years in detention.
Victims include a landscaper snatched in a Home Depot parking lot in Rialto and held for days despite his son’s attempts to show agents the man’s U.S. passport; a New York resident locked up for more than three years fighting deportation efforts after a federal agent mistook his father for someone who wasn’t a U.S. citizen; and a Rhode Island housekeeper mistakenly targeted twice, resulting in her spending a night in prison the second time even though her husband had brought her U.S. passport to a court hearing.
They and others described the panic and feeling of powerlessness that set in as agents took them into custody without explanation and ignored their claims of citizenship.
…the detentions of U.S. citizens amount to an unsettling type of collateral damage in the government’s effort to remove undocumented or unwanted immigrants.
The errors reveal flaws in the way ICE identifies people for deportation, including its reliance on databases that are incomplete and plagued by mistakes. The wrongful arrests also highlight a presumption that pervades U.S. immigration agencies and courts that those born outside the United States are not here legally unless electronic records show otherwise. And when mistakes are not quickly remedied, citizens are forced into an immigration court system where they must fight to prove they should not be removed from the country, often without the help of an attorney.
The Times found that the two groups most vulnerable to becoming mistaken ICE targets are the children of immigrants and citizens born outside the country.
…The Times found more than two dozen federal lawsuits in which U.S. citizens sued for unlawful arrest after ICE changed its policies in 2008 to prevent such detentions. Their time in custody ranged from a day to more than three years. Twelve of the men and women held U.S. passports proving their citizenship. ICE had mistakenly arrested several of the people more than once.
In an internal email prompted by the seven-day jailing of a Chicago man, an ICE official wrote that it was agency practice to tell citizens that the burden was on them to obtain written proof of their legal status to ensure they would not be wrongly targeted again.”