An ICE detention center in Louisiana (GAO)

GAO: Actions Needed to Better Track Cases Involving U.S. Citizenship Investigations

In recent years, some U.S. citizens have claimed they were mistakenly identified as foreign nationals and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on immigration charges.

The Government Accountability Office made 2 recommendations to ICE to better identify and track cases involving U.S. citizens.

GAO was asked to review issues related to U.S. citizens detained by ICE or held by CBP on administrative immigration charges. GAO analyzed DHS documents and record-level enforcement data, and interviewed DHS officials at headquarters and in the field.

ICE and CBP have policies and procedures for investigating citizenship, but some ICE guidance is inconsistent. Specifically, ICE policy requires officers to interview individuals claiming U.S. citizenship in the presence of, or in consultation with, a supervisor, but its training materials direct officers to end questioning if the officer believes the individual and the evidence suggests the individual is a U.S. citizen—without consulting a supervisor. By making its training materials consistent with ICE policy, ICE would have more assurance that all encounters with potential U.S. citizens receive appropriate supervisory review.

Further, while ICE policy requires officers to document citizenship investigations in ICE data systems, it does not require officers to update the citizenship field after identifying evidence that an individual may be a U.S. citizen. As a result, ICE does not know the extent to which its officers are taking enforcement actions against individuals who could be U.S. citizens. By systematically collecting and maintaining electronic data, ICE would have better insight into its officers’ enforcement of administrative immigration law.

Available data indicate ICE and CBP took enforcement actions against some U.S. citizens. For example, available ICE data indicate that ICE arrested 674, detained 121, and removed 70 potential U.S. citizens from fiscal year 2015 through the second quarter of fiscal year 2020 (March 2020).

ICE has policies and procedures for investigating citizenship of individuals for detainers. Detainers are notices from ICE to other law enforcement agencies that articulate probable cause for removability. They also request for such agencies to inform DHS of a removable individual’s pending release date and to maintain custody for up to 48 hours to allow DHS to assume custody. ICE officers are, to the extent feasible, to interview individuals in the custody of another law enforcement agency to aid in assessing the individuals’ potential citizenship prior to issuing detainers. Available ICE data indicate ICE issued detainers for at least 895 potential U.S. citizens from fiscal year 2015 through the second quarter of 2020 and cancelled about 74 percent of those detainers.

GAO recommends that ICE (1) update its training materials to reflect ICE policies regarding potential U.S. citizens, and (2) systematically collect and maintain electronic data of its encounters with individuals for whom there is evidence of potential U.S. citizenship. DHS concurred with the recommendations.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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