The government's immigration enforcers run amok.

The government's immigration enforcers run amok.

The government's immigration enforcers run amok.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 30 2008 7:15 AM

Operation Return to Sender

The government's immigration enforcers run amok.

An ICE officer arrests a suspect. Click image to expand.
An ICE officer arrests a suspect

May has been an embattled month for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, faced inquiries from House and Senate members about the inhumane treatment of people detained for violating immigration laws. This congressional scrutiny followed a special report in the Washington Post (and a rash of articles elsewhere) detailing stomach-turning—and sometimes deadly—mistreatment in immigrant detention centers.

A bill to improve detention center conditions has recently been introduced in Congress, but this legislation would do nothing to address the abuses committed by ICE officers well before the people they pick up reach a detention center. Nor would it alter the framework of immigration enforcement that has led to the mistreatment. Congress should be thinking about these problems, too—and so should the courts.


Since 2006, ICE has been dispatching teams of agents into neighborhoods throughout the country as part of a ramped-up enforcement effort called "Operation Return to Sender." Each team must apprehend an annual quota, currently set at 1,000, of fugitive aliens. These are immigrants who remain in the United States despite outstanding orders to leave.

Unsurprisingly, people who've been ordered deported are not always easy to find. This is not just because undocumented immigrants flee deportation (although, of course, some do). It's also because, according to a 2006 Department of Homeland Security report, about half of the information in ICE's "Deportable Alien Control System"—a database of immigrants to be deported—is incorrect or incomplete. This means that many immigrants never receive a deportation notice and so don't know they've been ordered to leave. It also means that ICE officers, relying on faulty information, don't know where to find them.

And so, to meet their quotas, enforcement teams carry out large-scale sweeps, raiding homes in neighborhoods with a lot of immigrants just after sunrise. Without an accurate list of which homes actually harbor undocumented immigrants, agents often rely on race to figure out who's here legally and who isn't. For example, in Fair Haven, Conn., several residents reported that during a raid last summer, ICE officers went door to door asking how many people were inside each house—and what race they were. In an ICE operation in Willmar, Minn., Latino residents were handcuffed and interrogated while white residents, some even in the same home, went unquestioned.

Race, in fact, is not a very good indicator of whether someone is in the United States illegally. Up to two-thirds of the people ICE arrests have never received deportation orders, frequently because their presence here is lawful. By ICE's own admission, the bureau has mistakenly detained, arrested, and even deported not only legal immigrants but also U.S. citizens. Those caught up in recent home raids include Adriana Aguilar, a citizen living in East Hampton, N.Y., who was sound asleep with her 4-year-old son when ICE officers stormed into her bedroom, pulled the covers off the bed, and shined flashlights into her face before interrogating her. In San Rafael, Calif., ICE detained 6-year-old Kebin Reyes, a citizen from birth, holding him in a locked office for 12 hours after immigration agents, pretending to be police, stormed into the apartment he shared with his father and forcibly removed him from his home.