Published May 5, 2020
For the past 15 years, TRAC has been a valuable source of immigration data. TRAC's reports and statistics are often cited in news articles, used in scholarly and legal publications, and referred to by government officials. TRAC's data tools and applications are accessed by thousands of people each month and TRAC reports are sent to people across the US and around the world. This report provides a brief introduction to our immigration data and tools. We hope that this is helpful for those of you who are new to TRAC's work, and benefit more experienced users as well.
TRAC's data is obtained from federal agencies through Freedom of Information Act requests as well as directly from the federal courts. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was passed in 1966 and later strengthened in 1974 following the Watergate scandal, is a pillar of democracy and government transparency. FOIA allows the public to request and obtain any federal agency record as long as that information does not fall under several types of exemptions designed to safeguard national security, personal privacy, and other specific matters. FOIA requests have become a commonplace way for US citizens to learn about how their government works and to participate in democratic accountability.
Rather than requesting documents, TRAC uses FOIA to obtain data from the government's own internal databases. Since the 1980s, the government has increasingly used databases to manage and record their activities. One type of database stores documents electronically and allows searching through them using various tags and text strings. Other large, complex databases contain the "transactional" records of what agencies are actually doing on a day-to-day basis. Accessing and understanding federal transactional databases requires specialized knowledge, technological resources, and sometimes legal knowledge which TRAC has developed over thirty years of experience. TRAC's data-driven research provides the public with insights about government activity that are essential to fostering an informed public, which is paramount for the flourishing of democracy.
This is how TRAC obtains data about immigration enforcement activity. As the immigration system grew rapidly in recent decades, the government transitioned to using databases to manage its responsibilities. Part of TRAC's mission is to obtain this data, organize it in ways that are meaningful and useful, and make it available to the public. To understand TRAC's data, however, first we discuss basic information about how the US immigration system works. (Further information about TRAC available here.)
TRAC's immigration data focuses on immigration enforcement. To identify which of TRAC's immigration data tools will suit your needs, it is essential to begin with a basic understanding of the agencies that make up the US immigration system. This focus on agencies is important because each agency uses separate database systems which determine which information it tracks and how it is recorded and stored. Since FOIA only provides access to existing federal records and cannot force the government to create new records, understanding how immigration works is essential to understanding which records TRAC can obtain from each agency.
Non-citizens who want to live and work in the United States are required to obtain a visa. This process is handled primarily by the US Department of State (hereafter the State Department) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (hereafter USCIS). USCIS's responsibilities include family-based and employment-based visas and screening non-citizens who apply for asylum proactively, either at the US border (including border checkpoints and airports) or within a year of entering the country lawfully on a visa. Because the State Department and USCIS do not usually actively participate in immigration enforcement activity-such as arrests, detention, and deportation-TRAC does not focus its FOIA efforts on these two agencies. However, as the State Department and USCIS have played an increasingly important role in recent years, TRAC recently sought and received funding that has allowed it to begin requesting immigration data from these two agencies. TRAC has received very little in response to these requests thus far.
Non-citizens within in the United States who violate the rules of their visa or those who enter the country unlawfully may be subject to deportation, and under some circumstances for criminal prosecution. The US Department of Homeland Security (hereafter DHS) and the US Department of Justice (hereafter the Justice Department) share responsibility for determining who has violated immigration laws and decide what the outcome for each individual will be. DHS-and more specifically, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-is largely responsible for the law enforcement functions of the state, which includes investigating possible violations, arresting and detaining suspected immigration violators, and acting as a prosecutor in immigration court. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is a peer agency to ICE that operates along the US border and at points of entry (including airports).
The Justice Department is responsible for criminal prosecutions for immigration offenses in federal court and oversees the administrative immigration courts and immigration judges through the Executive Office for Immigration Review (hereafter EOIR). The process for determining who is allowed to stay in the US is called "removal proceedings." Deportation (or removal) is the most commonly discussed outcome, but there are others. The government may decide to allow an individual to stay in the United States for humanitarian reasons either temporarily (such as under Temporary Protected Status) or permanently (if granted asylum). It is important to note that under certain situations, ICE may deport people without going through the Immigration Courts; therefore, not all deportations will be represented by data from the EOIR.
TRAC routinely submits FOIA Requests to DHS and the Justice Department for data related to their respective roles in immigration enforcement for administrative as well as enforcement involving the immigration court as well as the federal district and appellate courts. Although TRAC collects data on federal civil and criminal prosecutions, including immigration-related prosecutions, in this report we focus on immigration enforcement and immigration court data.
Taken together, TRAC's data on ICE, CBP, and the EOIR provides unique and highly-detailed information about the US immigration system.
ICE (within DHS) plays a significant role in immigration enforcement throughout the United States and has therefore become an prominent figure for researchers, policymakers, and the public. TRAC's FOIA requests to ICE are focused on understanding the key "enforcement steps" during routine operations. Those moments include: booking non-citizens into detention facilities, conducting worksite investigations, sending a detainer to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies requesting them to hold immigrants temporarily, transferring detainees from facility to facility, or actually deporting a non-citizen to another country. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also makes a significant number of arrests.
TRAC has successfully obtained data about these enforcement actions and created the following interactive tools for the public that mirror each of these actions. Unlike data from the EOIR, each data tool below is entirely independent from one another, each functioning like different "snapshots" which ICE releases to TRAC sporadically and with much delay. Each data tool includes information about who is arrested and detained, but also includes other important anonymized information, such as the location of enforcement activity, demographic information, and criminal records of non-citizens.
The EOIR oversees over 60 Immigration Courts and several hundred immigration judges whose collective purpose is to hear cases brought against non-citizens by the Department of Homeland Security. The charging document-the document that puts immigrants in removal proceedings-is called a Notice to Appear (NTA). Once DHS files an NTA, the immigration courts have jurisdiction over the case. Immigration cases are extremely complicated, yet several key milestones and important data point do emerge, including: information about the beginning of removal cases, which immigration court handles cases, whether immigrants have an attorney, and the outcome of removal cases. Also significant are data about special topics, such as the creation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) that forces immigrants to remain in Mexico while they are simultaneously in removal proceedings inside the United States.
TRAC has successfully obtained data about the EOIR's activities and created the following interactive tools for the public. Unlike data from DHS, the data tools below rely on a common underlying (and quite enormous) database that includes anonymized information about immigration cases, and that is released to TRAC monthly in response to TRAC's periodic requests. Each data tool includes general data about removal cases, but also includes other important information, such as how long the cases took from beginning to end, the number of cases pending before each immigration court, immigration bond data, demographic information about people in removal proceedings, and details on case outcomes, especially for asylum cases.
Now that you know what information TRAC has available in the tools, this section provides an overview on how to use the tools effectively. The most robust tools contain three key interactive areas: (1) options for which data to include in the tool and how the data is represented, (2) the graph, and (3) the detailed tables that can be sorted and allow for drilling down into the data. For a variety of reasons, some tools do not contain all of these options. The image below shows the Immigration Court Backlog tool.
The top of the page shows the tool title and a list of key variables available in the data. In the area marked (1) in the upper-left, users can adjust the data on the graph and choose whether to count all immigration charges or specify only immigration charges or national security charges. The graph shown in area (2) adjusts in real time based on data selected in area (1) and in the tables below. Moving the cursor over bars on the graph will reveal counts for each bar.
Area (3) at the bottom of the page is the most dynamic part of each of TRAC's tools. The three tables represent three levels of detail, from most general on the far left to most detailed on the far right. The table on the far left shows the number of cases currently pending before the immigration courts broken down by state. Clicking on the heading (either State or Pending Cases) allows users to sort data: one click for descending, two clicks for ascending. The State that is highlighted in the left column will be graphed in area (2) above. The middle table shows one level of detail deeper. In the figure below, California is highlighted on the left, which means that the second table shows specific courts in California. The third table on the far right goes a step further: it shows the breakdown in nationality for each immigration court.
Although the data available in each of TRAC's tools varies, these principles are common throughout.
If you are using TRAC's data for the first time, you will likely come up with even more questions about how the US immigration system works, which will influence how you understand and interpret TRAC's data. Unfortunately, due to staffing limitations, TRAC is not able to provide in- depth support on these questions. However, TRAC maintains detailed "About the Data" pages for every tool, which we encourage you to consult as a starting point.
TRAC's public immigration tools are made available through private and public grants. However, some researchers and journalists may wish to work on projects that require more in-depth analysis than TRAC's online tools provide. To accommodate these needs, TRAC created the TRAC Fellows program, which provides additional access to raw data sets and individualized consulting. Because this is necessarily a labor intense process, it is only available to scholars and reporters whose organizations have annual site licenses to TRAC's information services. TRAC Fellows have used TRAC's data to publish innovative research in leading academic journals and create newsworthy stories in leading media outlets. More information about the TRAC Fellows is available here.
We hope this report is useful for you, whether you are familiar with TRAC's immigration data tools or using them for the first time. If this was helpful, please let us know by sharing feedback on Twitter (@TRACReports) or sending us an email (email@example.com).