ICE deported at least 70 people who had a possible claim to U.S. citizenship, according to a new audit by the Government Accountability Office that dinged the deportation agency for failing to do a good enough job investigating and tracking the issue.
American citizens are supposed to be immune from deportation, but sorting through claims of citizenship can be tricky for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE made 674 immigration-related arrests in cases where the agency’s records indicated a person was a potential citizen during five and a half years, beginning in fiscal year 2015. That’s less than one-tenth of a percent of the total 740,000 arrests made during that time.
ICE ended up detaining 121 people with potential citizenship claims, and 70 were deported.
Dozens of more people with unknown citizenship were also arrested, and 42 of those were deported, the GAO said.
Investigators said the arrest numbers could be higher, but neither ICE nor Customs and Border Protection, which also enforces immigration laws, maintain good enough records to capture the full extent of the problem.
“ICE does not know the extent to which its officers are encountering and taking enforcement actions against individuals who could be U.S. citizens,” the GAO concluded.
The audit recommended ICE update its training to ensure supervisors are consulted whenever an officer targets a potential U.S. citizen for enforcement and urged ICE to do a better job of record-keeping.
Homeland Security, which oversees ICE and CBP, agreed with both recommendations but said it is doing its best to sort through the thorny issues.
“U.S. citizenship law is complex, and an individual’s U.S. citizenship may not always be easily ascertained,” Jim H. Crumpacker, the department’s GAO liaison, wrote in an official response.
He said sometimes the arrestees themselves don’t know their status, and family members who could help sort things out refuse to talk or give false or contradictory evidence.
And decisions by immigration courts or regular federal courts can also affect who qualifies for citizenship, which Mr. Crumpacker suggested may have made some folks eligible after ICE had already done its review of their cases.