By Melissa Cruz, Immigration Impact
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) keeps making an inexcusable error: it has been deporting U.S. citizens by mistake.
70 potential U.S. citizens were deported between 2015 and 2020, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded. They were deported even though U.S. citizens cannot be charged with violations of civil immigration law.
All told, available data shows that ICE arrested 674 potential U.S. citizens, detained 121, and deported 70 during the time frame the government watchdog analyzed.
The true number may be even higher. The investigators found that neither ICE nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) maintain good enough records to determine just how many people the agencies arrested or deported in error.
ICE’s Inconsistent Training and Faulty Databases
GAO finds two major flaws, among others, that could explain why this keeps happening. The government watchdog first points to ICE’s inconsistent training materials.
ICE policy requires officers to work alongside or consult with a supervisor when questioning people who claim they are U.S. citizens. Despite this overall policy, ICE training materials say officers are free to interview such individuals alone. This discrepancy between ICE’s policy and training materials leaves room for low-level officers to make incredibly consequential decisions without a supervisor present.
Loopholes in ICE’s data systems complicate the issue further. Officers must document citizenship investigations in ICE databases—but aren’t required to update the citizenship field marking if someone is a citizen after the investigation is complete.
Because of this incomplete data, the GAO concludes that “ICE does not know the extent to which its officers are taking enforcement actions against individuals who could be U.S. citizens.”
Data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, however, found that ICE wrongly identified at least 2,840 U.S. citizens as potentially eligible for removal between 2002 and 2017. At least 214 were then taken into custody for a period of time.
Immigration Agencies’ History of Racial Profiling
Studies have repeatedly shown that both ICE and CBP have a documented history of racial profiling and racism among their ranks. Consequently, people of color are often the target of these unwarranted immigration enforcement actions.
Accounts of mistaken arrest, detention, and deportation are all too common. And because immigrants are not guaranteed free counsel, some U.S. citizens have also languished in detention for far too long as well.
In one case, Davino Watson, a U.S. citizen from New York, was held in an Alabama detention center for three years before being released by ICE. Without an attorney, he was left to prove his citizenship status to the agency alone.
Despite this clear violation of ICE’s protocol, an appeals court found that Watson was not entitled to any financial compensation for his unjust arrest and detainment. The statute of limitations had expired.
Watson’s devastating experience is one out of the thousands of unjust immigration enforcement actions that occur every year—to both U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. ICE and CBP must update their systems to better track citizenship investigations before more people are wrongly targeted for arrest or removal.