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 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’ review of federal documents and lawsuits turned up cases in which Americans were arrested based on mistakes or cursory ICE investigations and some who were repeatedly targeted because the government failed to update its records. Immigration lawyers said federal agents rarely conduct interviews before making arrests and getting ICE to correct its records is difficult.
In the seven and a half years ending in February, ICE reviewed 8,043 citizenship claims of people in custody, according to figures provided by the Department of Homeland Security. In 1,488 — nearly a fifth of those cases — ICE lawyers concluded the evidence “tended to show that the individual may, in fact, be a U.S. citizen,” a DHS spokeswoman said.
In addition, 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.
A 2011 UC Berkeley study of ICE’s early use of IDENT found six U.S. citizens, including one who had previously been deported, in a sample of 375 arrests — an error rate that would affect thousands of Americans on a national scale. And government audits showed that last year 52,000 people were wrongly tagged in the Central Index System, a key database used by immigration agents, as being ineligible to work in the U.S.
A training document for users of the Central Index System, which is maintained by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, warns of incorrect or multiple identification numbers, scrambled names, inconsistent procedures for recording multi-part names common in Latin and Chinese cultures, aliases, misspellings and typographical errors, incorrect birth dates and lost records.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” the document cautions, a reminder that what computer systems deliver is only as good as what goes in.
It is common for people facing deportation to be unaware they have a rightful claim to citizenship, both ICE officials and immigration attorneys said.
The task of proving citizenship can mean digging up the birth certificates of dead parents and finding work records from decades ago to show they lived in the country long enough to confer citizenship on their children.
Such legal fights “can be really, really difficult,” especially if the person is locked in a detention facility, said Ashley Tabbador, a federal immigration judge in Los Angeles who spoke in her capacity as president of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges. “Unless the person is able to come forth with enough facts,” Tabbador said, judges are likely to side with ICE.
Immigration lawyers said they make it a habit to ask clients about their parents’ immigration status and other indications of citizenship that ICE agents often overlook.
A decade of Justice Department records analyzed by the Times show the success of defendants making U.S. citizenship claims more than doubled if they had an attorney.
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