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Two Steps to Preventing False Arrests

Cecillia Wang,
Deputy Legal Director,
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April 10, 2009

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday on several U.S. citizens who have been mistakenly swept up, arrested and locked up as “illegal aliens” by the federal immigration agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), or other police agencies. Some citizens have even been thrown out of the country in removal proceedings, despite their desperate efforts to prove their citizenship.

Alarmingly, the risk of these erroneous government actions seems to have increased as officials — federal, state and local — jump on the bandwagon of more immigration enforcement and harsher immigration enforcement, without the careful thought that should go into good government. As a result, everyone’s constitutional rights are threatened through over-reaching and too-hasty police actions.

Law enforcement officials could do a lot to prevent the erroneous arrest, incarceration, and deportation of American citizens for immigration violations through two simple policy changes:

  1. Stop mass immigration raids that don’t follow the rules of the U.S. Constitution. Imagine that you are at your workplace, doing your job and minding your own business, when suddenly hundreds of ICE officers storm into the building. The armed ICE officers order you and all your coworkers to stop what you’re doing, herd you into groups, start to interrogate you, and demand to see proof that you are a U.S. citizen. Is your driver’s license good enough? No. You need to show your birth certificate or a naturalization certificate, which you don’t carry around with you. You are subjected to this frightening and humiliating experience for hours while you scramble to prove your U.S. citizenship. By casting a dragnet at large workplaces, ICE imposes detention and hardships on large numbers of people who are working in the United States lawfully. ICE should carry out its enforcement actions in a targeted way, focusing on cases where it has hard evidence of immigration violations and following the rule of law.
  2. Stop relying on databases that are not accurate and detaining people based on standardless ICE detainers. Imagine that you are stopped by your local police for a traffic violation. Or you might be wrongly arrested on a criminal charge and held briefly in jail until the charges are dropped. In the meantime, however, a police officer calls ICE and asks them to run your name through a database that purportedly contains information about immigration violations. Even though you are a U.S. citizen or a lawful immigrant, the ICE officer says that the database indicates that you are an “illegal alien” and issues a detainer. Although you’ve committed no crime, the local police keep you in jail for up to 48 hours based on the ICE detainer while ICE gets around to picking you up and interviewing you. By the time you’re able to prove that you’re a U.S. citizen, you’ve been locked up for days. Local police should not rely on ICE detainers to arrest and detain people, and should think twice before relying on error-prone ICE databases to justify immigration arrests.

It is the federal government’s job to enforce our immigration laws. But in doing so, they must follow the rules in the U.S. Constitution and other laws that are designed to protect us from police mistakes — mistakes that can result in wrongful arrest, incarceration or even deportation.

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