Fast Facts

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.

ICE and CBP have policies and procedures for investigating citizenship, but we found some ICE guidance is inconsistent and ICE does not systematically track these encounters. Our analysis of available ICE data indicates arrests, detentions, and removals of some U.S. citizens over the last 5 years.

We made 2 recommendations to ICE to better identify and track cases involving U.S. citizens.

ICE Detention Facility in Louisiana

An ICE Detention Facility

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (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).

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement Actions Against Potential U.S. Citizens from Fiscal Years 2015 through 2020 Quarter 2 (March 2020)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement Actions Against Potential U.S. Citizens from Fiscal Years 2015 through 2020 Quarter 2 (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.

Why GAO Did This Study

In recent years, some U.S. citizens have claimed that they were mistakenly detained or removed by ICE and held by CBP on administrative immigration charges. Such charges are based on civil violations of U.S. immigration law, but these charges are not applicable to 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. This report examines (1) the extent to which ICE and CBP have developed and implemented policies and procedures for investigating the potential U.S. citizenship of individuals its officers and agents encounter; (2) ICE and CBP data on U.S. citizens detained by ICE or held by CBP on administrative immigration charges; and (3) the extent to which ICE has developed and implemented policies and procedures for investigating the potential U.S. citizenship of individuals its officers identify for detainers. GAO analyzed DHS documents and record-level enforcement data, and interviewed DHS officials at headquarters and in the field.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should update ICE's training materials to reflect ICE policies requiring officers to consult supervisors during encounters with potential U.S. citizens. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In July 2021, we reported on DHS's detention of U.S. citizens. We found that ICE officer training materials contain guidance for notifying supervisors of encounters with potential U.S. citizens that are inconsistent with ICE policy. 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. We recommended that ICE update its training materials to reflect ICE policies requiring officers to consult supervisors during encounters with potential U.S. citizens. ICE agreed with this recommendation, describing changes it made in June 2021 to its training materials for ERO officer trainings and requested that we consider the recommendation resolved and closed. We reviewed the revised training materials and found that the revisions are positive steps. However, to fully implement the recommendation, ICE should ensure that its training materials reflect ICE's policy that officers are to interview all individuals claiming U.S. citizenship or with potential indicia of citizenship in the presence of, or in consultation with, a supervisor. We will continue to monitor ICE's efforts to address this recommendation.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should systematically collect and maintain electronic data on its encounters with individuals for whom there is probative evidence of U.S. citizenship. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In July 2021, we reported on DHS's detention of U.S. citizens. We found that 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 probative 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. We recommended that ICE systematically collect and maintain electronic data on its encounters with individuals for whom there is probative evidence of U.S. citizenship. ICE agreed with this recommendation, stating that it will analyze the processes and systems used to collect such information and update user guides and standard operating procedures to reflect new data collection requirements. We will continue to monitor ICE's efforts to address this recommendation.

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