ICE Declines to Release Information on Immigrant Detainees

October 04, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based organization responsible for much of the non-partisan data analysis on immigration enforcement, is accusing Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials of purposefully withholding information on immigrant detainees. After TRAC requested detailed information on the enforcement process through the Freedom of Information Act, ICE responded by saying much of the data was unavailable — even if ICE has previously released information on the same topic. ICE also set a high price for going through the data: $450,000.

TRAC requested a large set of data as part of its research on who is caught by ICE. Its FOIA request is very detailed, asking for information on detainee-by-detainee data on when and where illegal immigrants were arrested, how many family members they have in the U.S. and the final result of enforcement process. But ICE said in a response letter on Sept. 22 that much of this information was unavailable. (Click here to see a spreadsheet of the data requested.) This includes information ICE has released for detainees before, including their marital status, where they were detained and where they are being held now. Available information would cost TRAC $450,000, the ICE letter said — even though TRAC is part of an educational institution.

This time, though, a representative from ICE said the agency cannot provide information on certain topics, but did not explain why. TRAC argues this is a violation of the agency’s rules, the Obama administration’s stated commitment to transparency and FOIA policies, which require federal agencies to state specific reasons for keeping data from FOIA requesters.

The information requested by TRAC would be helpful to researchers and observers hoping to put numbers to the debate over immigration enforcement. While the Obama administration touts its increased enforcement, particularly of illegal immigrants who commit crimes, little is known about who the detainees are and how they enter the detention system. Without the information, it is difficult to challenge the images of illegal immigrants promoted by either side of the debate: from the right, illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals who must be removed; from the left, hard-working family members caught in an unfair system. There are likely elements of each, but additional information on detainees could clarify the picture.