There is a disturbing trend in aggressive immigration enforcement that is appearing more and more recently: the detention of U.S. citizens. There are clear indications that U.S. immigration agents are locking up people they assume must be non-citizens, but who are in fact U.S. citizens.

These abuses transcend any presidential administration. But there are indications that the Trump administration has been particularly aggressive in detaining and then challenging U.S.-born individuals about their citizenship status. According to a report released in July that analyzes ICE enforcement data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), there has been a striking increase in the number of U.S. citizens “encountered” by ICE during the Trump years.

In the first year after President Trump took office, ICE encountered 27,540 U.S. citizens. In comparison, during the last year of the Obama administration, ICE encountered 5,940 U.S. citizens. This trend suggests that some U.S. citizens who may “appear deportable” in the eyes of some U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have become increasingly vulnerable to immigration enforcement in recent years.

Consider three recent examples:

  • In March 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers detained a 9-year-old girl who is a U.S. citizen for 32 hours without her parents present. The girl lives in Tijuana and crosses the border every day to get to and from school in the United States. On this particular day, a CBP officer decided that she didn’t resemble the photo in her passport and detained her. Why it took nearly a day and a half to verify her U.S. citizenship and release her is unclear.
  • Throughout June and July 2019, an 18-year-old U.S.-citizen was detained for 23 days by CBP. He wasn’t given a chance to show officials his U.S. birth certificate until he was transferred to ICE custody—although even that didn’t immediately get him out of detention. He described conditions in the CBP facility as so bad that he considered allowing himself to be deported to Mexico just to get out.
  • A Marine veteran with PTSD was held by ICE for three days in Michigan in December 2018. He was briefly being held in jail for an altercation at a hospital when ICE requested that he be turned over to them for removal from the country.

Incidents such as this are not limited to the Trump administration. For instance, a U.S. citizen in New York was detained by ICE for two years beginning in 2016. He was being held in jail for a drug offense and, on the day of his release, was incorrectly informed that he was not a U.S. citizen and therefore subject to deportation. It is mind-boggling that it took officials two years to figure out he was a citizen.

There are many reasons to be critical of over-zealous immigration enforcement in the United States—such as the fact that enforcement is focused on non-violent individuals with no criminal records or relatively minor records. However, locking up U.S. citizens takes over-zealousness to a whole new level.

Photo by Keith Gardner