Huge Increase in Transfers
The number of individuals held in custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the just-ended FY 2009 is now estimated to have reached 369,483 detainees, more than twice what the total was in FY 1999. According to a recent agency report, this growth means that ICE is now operating the largest detention system in the country. 
As the number of detainees has grown, the agency — at least until recently — has not sought to balance where it located new detention beds with where the individuals were apprehended. Instead ICE has adopted a free-wheeling transfer policy to deal with the resulting imbalances. Under this policy, ICE transports detainees from their point of initial ICE detention to many different locations — often over long distances and frequently to remote locations. [1,2]
The broad finding that has emerged from an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of millions of ICE records and other information is that — as a result of these ICE policy decisions — the number of detainees that ICE has transferred each year has grown much more rapidly than the already surging population held in custody by the agency. Here are the details:
The findings are based on the analysis of data drawn from a range of different sources obtained by TRAC, plus an additional 3.4 million records obtained by the Human Rights Watch under the Freedom of Information Act. These records are reported to cover the detention history of each individual who passed through ICE detention facilities or those of its predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), from October 1, 1998 to April 22, 2008.
Unraveling the Immigration Detention System
In addition to allowing the analysis of the path followed by each detainee who passed through one or more detention facilities, these data also identified just which facilities across the nation were actually used by ICE (and its predecessor agency INS) over the years to house immigration detainees. (ICE of course has no authority to hold anyone for criminal violations of any law. Rather, these persons were held by ICE because of questions regarding their immigration status.)
Using this information, TRAC compiled a detailed facility-by-facility picture of each detention center's role in the immigration detention system. In total there were 1,528 different facilities recorded in these data as having been used to house ICE/INS detainees over the last decade, of which 654 housed ICE detainees during the most recent 12 month period covered by these data. Some facilities housed many detainees, others housed only a few.
To enable the public to examine the country's immigration detention system in more detail, TRAC has developed a unique new facility-based reporting system that provides details on each of these 1,528 facilities. Detainees were transferred from 1,393 of these facilities. The first edition of this reporting system focuses on the topic of this report — detainee transfers from each of these facilities.
(Future releases are planned that will focus on other subjects. Of special interest will be the forthcoming release analyzing the reasons why the ICE custody of each detainee came to an end — were they deported from the country or released on bond, were government claims found to be invalid or dropped, or did they leave ICE custody for other reasons?)
TRAC's new facility-by-facility reporting system has two key elements:
In this first edition covering detainee transfers, in-depth reports are available for detention facilities that transferred at least ten detainees during the last twelve months for which comprehensive data are available (April 2007 - March 2008). The reports cover the recent 12-month period as well as provide information about changes over time in the annual detainee population and transfer patterns. For all of the remaining facilities that held detainees going back to FY 1999, shorter reports have been prepared. Many of these older facilities no longer house ICE detainees.
Background to this Research
TRAC has drawn upon a variety of data sources, combining the records we received as a result of our FOIA requests and other efforts with the records obtained by Human Rights Watch through its independent FOIA request. The data, organized by detention facility, provide a record for each detainee that passed through a detention facility's doors over the last decade. Included is specific information on the date an individual was booked into a facility, the date the individual was booked out of that facility, a code for the reason he or she left the facility, and information on gender and nationality.
TRAC's own efforts to obtain data about individual ICE detainees, as well other information to clarify the hodgepodge of confused and secretive records regarding the mix of detention facilities used by the agency to house them, goes back to February 2006. At that time, in addition to seeking information about the detainees and their individual characteristics, TRAC requested copies of all ICE contracts with private companies as well as all the Intergovernmental Service Agreements. Under these agreements with local and state agencies, ICE obtains space in local jails, state prisons and other facilities to house detainees.
TRAC ultimately obtained copies of what ICE said were complete records concerning all contracts and Intergovernmental Service Agreements as well as other records on each detainee drawn from DHS's Enforcement Case Tracking System (ENFORCE). (This information was formerly part of the Deportable Alien Control System or DACS.)
Unfortunately, the materials produced by ICE after more than a two-year delay were both incomplete and heavily redacted. Here is one example. For each signed contract, vital information such as dollar amounts to be paid by the government had been blacked out (see example). Also blanked out was information about the particular criminal code that a detainee had been convicted under. Administrative appeals by TRAC resulted in further delay. Ultimately ICE released some copies with fewer redactions, along with additional contracts.
An additional difficulty was that ICE records identified each detention facility with a code, but details on the nature of the facility — even its name — were sometimes sketchy. Information on who actually operated the facility — e.g., a government agency versus a private company — was not included.
When TRAC began looking for information to fill in some of these blanks it encountered other barriers. One of these was the highly secretive nature of the private detention companies. TRAC's queries to these companies by correspondence and phone generally were ignored. In those rare instances when any kind of response was received, company officials were typically unwilling to provide specifics about the facilities they were operating for the government. Some were even reluctant to confirm the accuracy of information on their own web sites. (In one case, this intense concern for secrecy resulted in a company deleting some information that was available on its web site after receiving a TRAC call. In another case, the vice president of the company sent TRAC an email informing us that "ICE has very strict confidentiality requirements that do not allow [us] to give out too much information on our contracts.")
Over and over again, almost since the founding of the United States, the regulation of immigration has presented the nation with difficult political, social and management challenges. As documented in this report and the development by TRAC of a new mechanism to provide the public with otherwise unavailable information about the hundreds of facilities where undocumented aliens are detained, these challenges very much remain with the American people today.
 "Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations," by Dr. Dora Schriro, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security, October 6, 2009.
Support for the initial phases of this research was provided by the Ford Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, and Syracuse University. The later stages of this work were supported by Syracuse University, and by grants from the Four Freedoms Fund and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.