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ICE’s Sloppy Public Data Releases Undermine Congress’s Transparency Mandate

Published Sep 20, 2022

ICE’s latest release of detention data is, once again, riddled with errors. ICE’s data on Alternatives to Detention wrongly reports enrollments of 96,574 people, because the agency mistakenly released data from May 2021 rather than September 2022. (The actual number is closer to 300,000.) ICE’s reported data on immigrant detention facilities shows a similar but even more egregious error: the recently released data is, in fact, for February of Fiscal Year 2020—over two years old. As this report shows, these errors are now too frequent to be ignored and raise concerns that the agency is contributing to, rather than alleviating, misinformation about the immigration system.

When Congress ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to publish data on immigrant detention, perhaps it should have been clearer that it expected ICE to produce accurate data—not inconsistent, error-ridden, and misleading data that the agency currently provides to the public on a regular basis. These sloppy, uncorrected errors—more of the norm rather than the exception—demand immediate attention from both the public and from Congress.

The Department of Homeland Security is required by law to release these detention data to the public. Section 217 and 218 (Division D) of the Appropriations Act of 2020 (Public Law 116–93) require the Department of Homeland Security to release certain data related to immigration enforcement activities on a regular basis, including data on the performance of 287(g) enforcement agreements with non-federal law enforcement agencies, data on immigrants held in ICE detention, data on ICE’s alternatives to detention program, data on facilities where ICE holds immigrant detainees, and data on immigrants removed from the country. These previous requirements remain in place due to Sections 216 and 217 (Division F) of the Appropriations Act of 2021 (Public Law 116–260), which also expands the requirement for data related to detention, and continued by Sections 217 and 218 (Division F) of the Appropriations Act of 2022 (Public Law 117-103).

Over the past two years the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University has been collecting, vetting, and analyzing ICE’s bi-weekly public detention data releases. To Congress’s credit, the required data reports are valuable and provide important insight into trends in immigrant detention, alternatives to detention, and vulnerable populations. But the data also requires constant vigilance due to frequent errors.

The following list represents an inexhaustive sample of ICE’s previously botched detention data releases.

  • May 28, 2021. ICE’s data, 3 months out of date, misrepresents alternatives to detention enrollments by missing approximately 10,000 people enrolled in ATD. (See ICE's data file here.)
  • October 1, 2021. ICE’s data, 5 months out of date, misrepresents alternatives to detention enrollments by missing 30,000 people enrolled in ATD. (See ICE's data file here.)
  • October 28, 2021. ICE’s detention data, more than a year out of date, claims to provide data through the end of Fiscal Year 2020 (not 2021).(See ICE's data file here.)
  • November 12, 2021. ICE’s detention data file was completely unusable because it was released with entirely outdated figures (See ICE's data file here.)
  • January 20, 2022. ICE's detention data failed to include any data on the number of mandatory detainees, instead listing all fields as zeros (0).(See ICE's data file here.)
  • July 8, 2022. ICE’s detention data was released with significant internal errors in detention facility data, as TRAC announced at the time. The data on detainee classification levels fail to correspond to other data on detainees.(See ICE's data file here.)
  • August 4, 2022. ICE’s detention data file included old data on alternatives to detention and facility data from February 2022 instead of current data.(See ICE's data file here.)
  • August 9, 2022. ICE re-released its detention data file but included the old data released on August 4 on facility data from February 2022 instead of current data.(See ICE's data file here.)
  • August 31, 2022. Not for the first time, ICE’s detention data entirely omitted information about whether detention centers passed second to last inspections.(See ICE's data file here.)
  • September 15, 2022. As noted above, ICE’s latest detention data inexplicably includes alternatives to detention data from 2021 and detention facility data from 2020.(See ICE's data file here.)

The consequences to each of ICE’s errors can be better understood by looking closely at the agency’s recent spate of inattention to complying with the law. ICE’s recent data release, published on its website on August 31, mistakenly claimed that large detention centers such as Adams County Detention Center in Missouri and Stewart Detention Facility in Georgia have contract payments based on mandatory bed counts of just 11 and 16 respectively, rather than their actual counts of 1,100 and 1,600. Confusingly, other facilities clipped off just one digit instead of the two last digits, while others showed correct values.

A less explainable error occurred earlier this year in March 2022 for the same data point when, on March 17, 2022, ICE released a long list of nonsense numbers. The agency claimed that Stewart Detention Center’s mandatory minimum number of beds was, to be exact, 503.222929936306—a number which is not close to the actual number of 1,600 and which reveals no obvious rationale, although it is readily apparent that it is wrong.

If these errors are easily identifiable, why did ICE release the erroneous and misleading data to the public without identifying and correcting the errors? And why did the agency leave the erroneous data online rather than issuing a correction? More importantly, how widespread is ICE’s practice of publishing—and failing to correct—sloppy data, and does this represent a deeper pattern of indifference or negligence towards its transparency obligations to Congress and to the public? Either the agency fails to implement even the most pedestrian of data quality protocols to catch these errors (in this case, simply a second pair of competent eyes) or the agency does catch the errors but decides instead to release misinformation to the public rather than fix it.

This is hardly the only area in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement is withholding data from the public that it is required by law to produce. Human Rights First recently reported that the agency is failing to produce, and release to the public, annual reports on the detention of asylum seekers required by the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA) of 1998. DHS has not produced a public report since FY 2014. ICE also came under fire from the ACLU during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when ICE’s public data on COVID infection rates contained severe irregularities, at times recording more infections of detainees in a facility than the total number of people detained in that facility. The Transparency Project at the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) found that ICE historically does not post all of its detention contracts as required, has withheld the results of detention inspections, and noted that ICE has been largely “non-compliant or evasive” in its responses to Congress’s guidance on immigrant detention in the past.

Nor are these patterns recent. ICE’s often inconsistent and unreliable public data is not new. TRAC has found concerning inconsistencies in ICE’s data many times in the past. In 2012, TRAC found enormous discrepancies between ICE’s reported number of immigrants apprehended, detained, and deported, and the information that ICE had on record to back up those claims. Over a year after TRAC raised those concerns, ICE finally admitted that it could not back up its public claims with supporting data, raising questions about the validity of the agency’s claims in the first place.

These concerns could be significantly alleviated if ICE would release records to the public in a timely fashion. Yet rather than complying with its obligations to release the underlying detention data in response to lawful Freedom of Information Act requests, the agency continues to fight FOIA requesters in court for these records that could provide clarity to the public about important immigration enforcement policies.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s posture of sloppiness and indifference towards Congress’s transparency requirements, as well as the agency’s recalcitrance towards its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, are cause for significant concern. In light of the ongoing divisive politics surrounding immigration, data transparency may not seem like a top priority. But it is because of these divisive politics that accurate, reliable, and timely data are more crucial to the public than ever. The public should be able to trust that ICE is able and willing to produce a clear, accurate picture of immigration enforcement that will help address misinformation rather than produce the kind of consistently inaccurate data that contributes to misinformation.

TRAC urges ICE to improve its transparency and quality assurance practices, and urges Congress and the public to hold the agency accountable to its lawful transparency obligations.

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 trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.