ICE exaggerating number of people deported, says transparency group

Inmates stand in a holding cell at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center.

A Syracuse University-based transparency group released the results today of a two year long Freedom of Information struggle with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The startling data, based on case-by-case numbers of immigrants apprehended, detained and deported by ICE in 2005 appears to show that agency vastly over-reported these numbers in official statements.

The new records show just under 7,000 people deported in 2005, the most recent year for which data was provided to The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) a non-partisan organization that monitors the federal government through FOIA requests. But in official statements ICE claimed to have deported 24 more times as many individuals that year, some 166,075 people. The numbers of immigrants arrested and detained also don’t match up to past ICE statements.

Betsy Tao, Directing Attorney at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project‘s office in Tacoma, told the Globalist that the numbers provided to TRAC seem too low. “This looks to me like not all the numbers were provided.”

Tao said in the Tacoma area alone, where ICE’s Northwest Detention Center holds over 1,000 detainees at a time, she sees as many as 50-100 people pass through the immigration courts in a single day. She estimated that 2,000 people were deported through the local courts last year — nearly a third of the national figure for deportations that ICE provided to TRAC for 2005.

If the TRAC numbers are in fact correct, Tao suggests that ICE could have been inflating its public statistics to survive widespread government budget cuts. In recent years ICE’s funding, along with the number of reported deportations, has been on the rise. “There is always that pressure,” Tao says. “You have to show that you’re doing something with the money you’re receiving. You have to show results.” An investigation by the Washington Post found the agency used “unusual methods” to calculate a record-breaking number of deportations in 2010.

That was the year TRAC initially submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the newly released data. The group accuses ICE in a statement today of failing to abide by the open records act, only providing the requested documents long after legal deadlines had passed and charging nearly half a million dollars in processing fees.

The TRAC statement also offers an alternative explanation for the discrepancy: that ICE withheld data from the FOIA request “on a massive scale”.

In an email statement, ICE Spokesperson Gillian Christensen responded that, “similar to other reports recently released by TRAC, this report is astoundingly inaccurate and based on conclusions gathered from an incomplete set of data.”

In a similar report just last month, TRAC examined ICE records and found that only a small proportion of people being deported are convicted criminals, contrary to statements by the Obama administration that criminal deportations are increasing.

In 2009 the Common Language Project produced a five part radio series on the immigration detention and deportation system in the Pacific Northwest, in cooperation local NPR affiliate KUOW. You can find that story here.