U.S. immigration officers operate under a cardinal rule: Keep your hands off Americans. Still, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents repeatedly target U.S. citizens for deportation by mistake, making wrongful arrests based on incomplete government records, bad data and lax investigations, finds a Los Angeles Times review of federal lawsuits, internal ICE documents and interviews. Since 2012, ICE has released from custody more than 1,480 people after investigating their citizenship claims. The Times uncovered hundreds of other cases in immigration courts in which people were forced to prove they are Americans and sometimes spent months or even years in detention.
Victims include a landscaper snatched in a Home Depot parking lot in Rialto, Ca., and held for days despite his son’s attempts to show agents the man’s U.S. passport; a New York resident locked up for more than three years fighting deportation efforts after a federal agent mistook his father for someone who wasn’t a U.S. citizen; and a Rhode Island housekeeper mistakenly targeted twice, resulting in her spending a night in prison the second time even though her husband had brought her U.S. passport to a court hearing. They and others described the panic and feeling of powerlessness that set in as agents took them into custody without explanation and ignored their claims of citizenship. The wrongful arrests account for a small fraction of the more than 100,000 arrests ICE makes each year, and it’s unclear whether the Trump administration’s aggressive push to increase deportations will lead to more mistakes.