Piecing Together the US Immigrant Detention Puzzle One Night at a Time: An Analysis of All Persons in DHS-ICE Custody on September 22, 2012

by Donald Kerwin, with Daniela Alulema and Siqi Tu


This paper analyzes a dataset of every person in the custody of the US Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (DHS-ICE or ICE) on September 22, 2012, and compares this data with an earlier analysis of a similar dataset on detainees in DHS-ICE custody on January 25, 2009. DHS-ICE provided the 2012 and 2009 datasets in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the Boston Globe and Associated Press. The paper sets forth findings related to: (1) the removal adjudication processes to which the detainees were subject; (2) the facilities in which they were held; (3) their length of detention; and (4) their criminal histories, if any. It finds that on September 22, 2012:

  • DHS-ICE held 35,197 people in its custody.
  • 18,470 detainees had pending removal cases, 14,674 had been ordered removed, and 2,053 cases included no information on whether or not the detainee had been ordered removed.
  • Thirty-eight percent of detainees were subject to summary, non-court removal processes.
  • Forty percent of detainees were from the Northern Triangle states of Central America and 34 percent from Mexico, compared to 37 percent from Mexico and 28 percent from Central America on January 25, 2009.
  • Detainees were held in 189 facilities, with 77 percent concentrated in nine states and 51 percent in the four states that border Mexico.
  • DHS-ICE held 67 percent of all detainees in facilities owned and/or administered by for-profit prison corporations and 90 percent of detainees in the 21 facilities with the largest detention populations.
  • Forty-seven percent of detainees had been held for less than 30 days, and 4,179 (12 percent) had been held for more than six months.
  • Of those ordered removed and continuously detained in the interim, 553 persons had been detained for more than six months after being ordered removed, despite being presumptively eligible for release after six months.
  • Sixty-one percent of detainees had criminal convictions, compared to 42 percent on January 25, 2009.
  • Less than 10 percent of all detainees on September 22, 2012 had committed violent crimes and substantial percentages — a higher rate than on January 25, 2009 — had committed traffic and immigration violations.

The paper argues that DHS-ICE should collect extensive data on detainees, make it broadly available on a consistent basis, and become more transparent and accountable to the public. It recommends that:

  • DHS-ICE comprehensively analyze its detention information systems and data collection to ensure that the agency can meet its legal imperatives, operational responsibilities, and detention standards.
  • DHS-ICE initiate a process to engage Congress, other federal agencies, states, scholars, researchers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the detention information and data that it should collect and make publicly available. 
  • DHS-ICE release its “Enforce Alien Removal Module (EARM) and the Enforce Alien Booking Modules (EABM)” manual that describes the detention information it collects, and that it regularly release extensive data on all those held in its custody. 
  • DHS-ICE work with the immigration courts and detainee states of origin to avoid prolonged and indefinite detention in all cases.
  • DHS-ICE collect complete and accurate data and that it not leave data fields blank or fill them out incorrectly.
  • Congress and DHS-ICE substantially expand community-based, supervised release, alternative-to-detention programs.
  • Congress and DHS-ICE reduce, if not eliminate, the role of for-profit entities in administering immigrant detention facilities, and take full responsibility for this core government responsibility.