How can ICE keep detaining and deporting US citizens?

A person with legal US citizenship status cannot be deported – yet it happens. There are numerous cases where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has caught wrongly detaining  and deporting many persons who were, in fact, lawful US citizens. Although individual rights can be significantly affected under immigration laws, constitutional legal protections are not guaranteed when a person faces detention and deportation under immigration laws. Serious reforms are needed in order to better protect those vulnerable to the often random enforcement and largely unchecked deportation authority wielded by ICE.

Why Are US Citizens Being Deported?

ICE is the agency that is in charge of enforcing immigration laws. It conducts investigations and initiate detaining and deporting proceedings. ICE is supposed to identify non-citizens who pose a threat to public safety and those who have violated immigration laws.

ICE is given broad authority to carry out immigration enforcement functions. But inconsistent enforcement policies and poor record-keeping have resulted in improper detaining and deporting decisions. Many of which lack of accurate information.


Between 2015 and 2020 data collected by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows that ICE:

  • arrested 674 potential US citizens
  • detained 121 potential US citizens
  • deported 70 potential US citizens

When there is some indication of US citizenship, ICE agents are required to investigate the circumstances prior to taking any enforcement action. When someone claims to be a US citizen, ICE policy requires that a supervisor review the information before a citizenship determination is made. But officer training materials allow the interviewing officer to make the determination without supervisory guidance, resulting in rare cases of the wrongful detaining and deporting of US citizens.

ICE is required to document each citizenship investigation but the conclusion of the investigation is often not reported in the system and so the citizenship question remains unanswered to anyone else trying to verify citizenship status.

Compounding the problem are those who claim US citizenship but cannot produce the necessary documentation to prove it. No legal or other assistance is provided to help people verify their claims of citizenship. Many times US citizens have been deported because they could not get the information they needed.

Cases Where US Citizens Were Detained and Deported by ICE

In these publicized cases where ICE either detained or deported US citizens, the agency knew or had reason to believe that the person claiming to be a US citizen was, indeed, a citizen and chose to detain or remove them illegally anyway.

  • Mark Lyttle is a US citizen born in the US who suffers from mental disabilities. Somehow he got referred to ICE as an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Lyttle had never been to Mexico and was not even of Mexican heritage. Despite the fact there was “substantial evidence”, according to ICE, that he was a US citizen. ICE illegally detained Lyttle for 51 days and got him to sign a statement saying he was from Mexico. Lyttle did not have legal assistance and was deported to Mexico where he spent 125 days wandering the streets with no money and no ID. Fortunately, an embassy official helped Lyttle get a passport and he was able to return to the US – where ICE again detained him and attempted to deport him. This time Lyttle was able to get an attorney and get the removal proceedings terminated.
  • Jilmar Ramos-Gomez is a US Marine veteran born and raised in the US. Ramos-Gomez had a hard time readjusting to civilian life after his service and got arrested for trespassing. When he was arrested, Ramos-Gomez had a US Passport, a REAL ID driver’s license and his US Marine ID tags. Yet, ICE officials transferred Ramos-Gomez to an immigration detention center and began removal proceedings because they believed him to be an undocumented Guatemalan citizen. Ramos-Gomez was finally able to obtain legal representation to stop the removal proceedings and verify his US citizenship after he was illegally detained for almost a month.
  • Ali Abdala gained US citizenship when his father became a naturalized citizen. ICE detained Abdala who claimed he was a US citizen. ICE started deportation proceedings while Abdala sat in jail for several months. An immigration judge ruled that Abdala was a US citizen and stopped his removal. However, ICE challenged the judge’s decision and Abdala remained in jail for another 5 months until he was able to successfully challenge the illegality of his detention.

What Can Be Done to Keep US Citizens Out of the Immigration System?

There is no right to counsel for those facing deportation under immigration laws. Many of those who are trying to defend themselves from deportation do not have legal representation and have no voice against the illegal treatment by ICE. Advocates for immigration reform suggest that requiring legal representation for persons facing deportation could prevent many of these miscarriages of justice.

The GAO has recommended that ICE consider some revisions to their practices so that there is more accountability for the decisions that are made and the information relied on is more accurate. Among GAO’s recommendations are:

  • ICE needs to update their training materials to match their policies and ensure proper procedures are followed.
  • ICE electronic data records need to include any and all evidence regarding citizenship

Even though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has concurred with the recommendations of GAO, ICE has not yet implemented the requested changes. The best short-term solution for citizens who may be mistaken for immigrants is to always carry proof of citizenship and to get legal representation when facing any immigration violation charges.

Contact Us Today

If you need a good immigration lawyer, contact us today at (800) 712-0000. The immigration laws are complex and having the right lawyer by your side is crucial. Make an appointment with our lawyers today and let us help you navigate the immigration system.

Contact Information