ICE Modified Its 'Risk Assessment' Software So It Automatically Recommends Detention

Update: This post has been updated with a statement from ICE.


When an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer arrests an undocumented immigrant, whether they have been residing in the US for years or were picked up trying to cross the border, the agency must make a custody decision. This decision determines whether the immigrant will be released on bond or detained in one of ICE’s prison-like detention centers until their court date. Since 2013, ICE has relied on a computerized Risk Classification Assessment that uses statistics to determine whether the immigrant should be released, and if so, on what on what bond amount.

According to a new investigative report from Reuters, however, last year ICE changed the risk assessment software so that it always recommends detention for apprehended immigrants to conform to Trump’s “zero tolerance” stance on illegal immigration. This change led to an almost immediate increase in the detention of immigrants with little to no criminal history, who would’ve normally been released on bond until their court date. In 2017, ICE booked more than 43,000 immigrants into its detention centers—more than three times the number of detainees in the year prior.

“The risk classification assessment removed the release option, but the RCA can still make recommendations on bond eligibility, and may recommend that an ICE deportation officer make a final decision on whether to detain an alien or release the individual in some capacity,” Matthew Bourke, an ICE spokesperson told me in an email. “Final custody decisions are always made by ICE deportation officers.”

Even before this change, however, the system was known to be ineffective. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s own documents describe the system as “time consuming, resource intensive, and not effective in determining which aliens to release or under what conditions.”

The risk assessment software requires the ICE agent to ask the immigrant up to 178 questions and the assessment must be reviewed twice, which the DHS claimed can “add several hours to alien intake processing.” Although the assessment asks for biometric information, details of the apprehension, special vulnerabilities such as mental illness, and about community ties, it does not take into account things like the rate at which detainees are later granted asylum or those that were granted bond release and then went into hiding. Not including this follow up data makes it difficult to determine the accuracy of the system and increase its predictive capabilities.

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In a 2015 review of the risk assessment system, the DHS claims the software is ineffective when it comes to complex cases, which the computer system will refer to a ICE supervising officer. According to the DHS, during its first year of use the system was unable to make a detain or release recommendation on nearly 20 percent of all cases. Furthermore, ICE officers ended up overriding nearly 22 percent of case decisions made by the system during the first year. Subsequent algorithm changes made by ICE in 2014 reduced the override rate to 7.6 percent.

Prior to ICE’s changes to its risk assessment software that result in mandatory detention for all apprehended immigrants, the only immigrants that would automatically be detained were those with serious criminal histories. According to the most recent data released by ICE cited in the Reuters report, the most serious crime committed by nearly half of arrested immigrants during the first 100 days of the Trump administration were traffic violations, which didn’t include drunk driving.

Even in the case of immigrants with criminal histories, however, a 2016 study using ICE’s risk assessment tool found that “immigrants with prior charges or convictions are no more dangerous than any other category of individuals in ICE custody.”

“Mandatory detention has been justified on grounds that detainees are a danger to public safety,” Robert Koulish, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland and the author of the 2016 study wrote. “Immigration mandatory detention is a particularly harsh example of the structural violence embedded in immigration enforcement. It deprives liberty without bond for immigrants with prior crimes, and assigns many individuals to the harsh conditions associated with unnecessary and even wrongful detention.”

Despite Trump’s budget-slashing approach to all areas of government, his ‘detain everyone’ approach to immigration enforcement have caused ICE’s spending on detainees to skyrocket. ICE estimates that it costs $133 per person per day to keep an immigrant in a detention center. On average, detained immigrants are held for 44 days before their trial. There are plenty of alternatives to detention, including electronic monitoring through ankle bracelets and having social workers monitor immigrants after they are released and awaiting appearance in court. The latter program, called the Family Case Management Program, was shown to result in a 99 percent court appearance rate for immigrants in the program, but it was shuttered without explanation in 2017 by the Trump administration.

Ironically, ICE itself asked for an increase in funding for alternative programs that don’t involve detention in its 2019 budget request to make up for its limited number of beds in detention centers. “It is critical that ICE have the ability to assign supplemental reporting requirements available under the ATD program for those individuals not subject to mandatory detention and/or not suitable for detention for a variety of reasons,” ICE’s budget request reads.

So even though the data and ICE itself call for alternatives to mandatory detention, the Trump administration has gone out of its way to ensure that everyone detained by immigration officers are detained, at a significant cost to the detainees and US taxpayers. But this is hardly surprising—Trump has never been one to let facts get in the way of ideology.