The Pandemic and ICE Use of Detainers in FY 2020
The pandemic appears to have caused only a temporary and modest drop in detainer usage by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE issues detainers asking local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies (LEAs) to hold individuals up to 48 hours in order to give ICE time to take them into custody and initiate deportation steps. ICE has long claimed that detainers, often called "immigration holds," are an essential tool needed to apprehend and deport individuals not authorized to remain in the U.S.
Average weekday detainer usage, already trending downward this year, began to show some reduction starting in mid-March when it fell below 400 per weekday, and by the first of April had fallen below 300. By the second week of April the daily weekday average fell to around 240. However, after mid-April usage started climbing back up. By the end of the first week in May it was back up to a weekday average of around 300, and by mid-May usage had recovered completely. See Figure 1.
Figure 1. Pandemic and Average Weekday ICE Detainers, January - June 2020
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These figures are based on the latest detainer-by-detainer internal ICE records obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
Detainer Trends and Secure Communities
ICE views detainers as a foundation of its Secure Communities program and has sought to pressure states and localities to comply. Most recently ICE made the news for featuring the face of immigrants with outstanding detainers on billboards to get its message across.
Courts, however, have held that ICE detainers alone provide no legal authority to hold someone, and have imposed financial penalties on LEAs for violating the constitutional rights of individuals who were held on ICE detainers. Most recently, on October 18, 2020, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors settled a lawsuit agreeing to pay $14 million dollars to individuals unlawfully held on the basis of ICE detainers by the county sheriff's department. According to ICE internal records, the Los Angeles County Jail had been sent the most ICE detainers of any facility in the nation between October 2002 - June 2020.
Despite the agency's continuing rhetoric on the importance of detainers, ICE has changed its actual behavior and has been cutting back on detainer usage for many months. Figure 2 plots ICE monthly detainer usage from June 2005 through June 2020.
Four years ago detainer usage did start increasing. Detainers began to climb after the presidential election in November of 2016, not waiting for Donald Trump's inauguration. Usage continued to grow until March 2017 when it reached 14,000 per month and then stabilized at about this same level—well below usage levels by the Obama Administration during the height of its reliance on Secure Communities.
Between March 2017 and August of 2019 (except for a short spurt in usage during the summer of 2018) detainer usage continued averaging around 14,000 per month. However, after August 2019, usage levels started to decline—and this downward slide has continued. During June 2020 only 8,636 detainers were recorded as prepared. See Figure 2.
Figure 2. ICE Detainer Usage, June 2005 - June 2020 (actual and 3-month running average)
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Geographic Patterns of Detainer Usage During FY 2020
During the first 9 months of FY 2020 ICE recorded preparing 90,382 detainers. According to agency internal records obtained by TRAC, ICE sent detainers to 3,056 LEAs located in all 50 states and the four U.S. territories. However, for most of these LEAs, receipt of an ICE detainer was an unusual event during FY 2020. Indeed, 626 LEAs received only a single detainer during this entire period and half (1,572) received no more than five. In reality, ICE concentrated its detainers on just a small number of facilities. Just 6 percent of the 3,056 LEAs received over 100 detainers during FY 2020. However, these relatively few facilities accounted for six out of every ten detainers issued by ICE thus far in FY 2020. See Table 1.
Table 1. ICE Detainers Sent LEAs, FY 2020 (through June)
In FY 2018 and FY 2019, LEAs in the state of California received the most ICE detainers in the nation. However, in FY 2020, ICE sharply reduced sending detainers to LEAs in California. As a result, Texas took the lead as the state targeted with the most ICE detainers. However, that state also experienced a reduction. In fact, consistent with the declining use of detainers nationwide between FY 2018 and FY 2020, almost every state experienced declines. See Table 2 at the end of the report.
Michigan, however, was one state that bucked these national trends. LEAs in that state according to ICE internal records received almost a two-fold increase in monthly detainers compared with FY 2019. Why? The U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) 1800-bed North Lake Correctional Facility (operated by the profit-making GEO Group) suddenly experienced an avalanche of detainers. That BOP facility now ranks second in the nation thus far in FY 2020 as the facility receiving the most detainers. Only the Harris County Jail in Texas, where Houston is located, received more.
Details on LEAs Receiving ICE Detainers
Accompanying this report is an online web tool which allows users to examine details on each of law enforcement agency that according to ICE records were sent ICE detainers from October 2002 through June 2020. Users can drill in by facility, or on a variety of other indicators including state, facility type, and citizenship of the subject of the detainer.
A second web tool provides access to historical data covering the period where ICE provided many more details on its detainer usage, including whether the individual was taken into custody and each subject's criminal history. TRAC has an ongoing FOIA lawsuit seeking release of these additional details now being withheld by ICE.
Table 2. ICE Detainer Usage by State, FY 2018 - FY 2020*
 Actually it is not unusual for the duration of detainer holds to be significantly longer than 48 hours. This is because the statute only counts "business hours" so that detainers issued on four out of seven days of the week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday) or encountering holidays last considerably longer. For example, if ICE issues a detainer at 3pm on Thursday, it doesn't expire on Saturday at 3pm. Instead it expires on Monday at 3pm. Similarly, one issued on Friday won't expire until the following Tuesday.
 TRAC continues to submit monthly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for updated detainer data. While the law requires agency to respond within 20 business days (up to 30 if exceptional circumstances exist), long delays can occur before a response is received, and the majority of requested information items have been missing from the files TRAC now receives from ICE. TRAC went to court in May of 2017 seeking an order to compel ICE to restore release of fields it had previously provided as well as to make additional data available. The "disappearing fields" that ICE now refuses to release include information on whether the agency actually took the individual into custody, whether the individual had a criminal record (and if so, what the specific crimes were), and ultimately if individuals were ever deported. ICE is aggressively fighting to avoid these disclosures and the lawsuit is ongoing.
 See earlier TRAC report for FY 2019 vs FY 2018 comparisons on ICE use of detainers. For state comparisons back to FY 2009 see TRAC's September 2019 report. For earlier national trends, see TRAC's April 2018 report.
 See earlier footnote 2.
TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 315-443-3563.