Report: ICE sometimes arrests US citizens by mistake (a very small percentage)

The LA Times published the result of an investigation today which concludes that a small percentage of the people arrested by ICE each year turn out to be American citizens:


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…

The wrongful arrests account for a small fraction of the more than 100,000 arrests ICE makes each year, and it’s unclear whether the Trump administration’s aggressive push to increase deportations will lead to more mistakes. But the detentions of U.S. citizens amount to an unsettling type of collateral damage in the government’s effort to remove illegal or unwanted immigrants.

If 1,480 people were released after being wrongly arrested over six years (2012-2017) that works out to 246 mistakes a year out of 100,000 arrests. That’s an error rate of 0.25 percent. That seems relatively low but I guess there’s always room for improvement. The story indicates ICE has been trying to deal with the problem. In 2009, Obama-era ICE Director set up a hotline and mandated that any claims of citizenship be addressed within 48-hours. The result was a lot of claims that didn’t pan out [emphasis added]:

A former senior attorney for ICE’s regional office in Los Angeles said the 2009 directive to conduct legal reviews of all citizenship claims brought dozens of cases to her desk every week. The people were all in custody, and agents, she said, generally assumed they were lying.

“The automatic response was, ‘Yeah, you’re just doing that to get out of our custody,’” said Patty Corrales, who left the federal agency in 2012 and now works in private practice. Most citizenship claims were false, she said, but “there were real citizens out there.”


The graph below, created by the LA Times, indicates that up to 1,000 people per year claimed they were American citizens, but only a fraction of those claims were substantiated.

Still, despite the evidence this problem isn’t all that common, there’s no doubt the results can be awful for some American citizens:

Sergio Carrillo had already been handcuffed in the Home Depot parking lot in Rialto on a July morning in 2016 when an officer in Homeland Security uniform appeared.

“Homeland Security?” Carrillo asked. “What do you want with me?”

Ignoring Carrillo’s demands for an explanation, the officer ordered the 39-year-old landscaper taken to a federal detention facility in downtown Los Angeles.

“You’re making a big mistake,” Carrillo recalled saying from the back seat to the officers driving him. “I am a U.S. citizen.”

Born in Mexico, Carrillo has lived nearly his entire life in the United States and automatically gained citizenship as a teen in 1994 when his mother became a citizen. He received a certificate of citizenship from the U.S. government and a passport to document his status.

After four days in detention, an attorney brought Carrillo’s Passport as proof of his citizenship and he was released. He sued and won a $20,000 settlement. But even in this case there was an explanation for the error that suggested this wasn’t the result of malice:

Carrillo had been convicted years earlier of carrying a concealed weapon and sending sexually explicit material to a minor — crimes that would have made him a priority for deportation had he been in the country illegally.


Digital copies of Carrillo’s fingerprints and certificate of citizenship had never been entered into federal databases, and his name was misspelled “Cabrillo” in a central database used heavily by ICE officers. There also was no evidence ICE agents checked if Carrillo held a passport.

Obviously, if there are errors in a database which agents rely on to gather information for arrests of hundreds of thousands of people, that’s a problem that needs to be rectified. But no bureaucratic system is ever going to be perfect, which is why it’s good that citizens have recourse to the courts when serious mistakes happen. I do wonder what level of error would be deemed acceptable by ICE’s critics.

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