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Lawsuit Says ICE Rigged its Own Software So That It’d Never Have to Release Immigrants

— March 4, 2020

Changes made to ICE’s Risk Classification Assessment algorithms in 2018 brought the agency’s release rate from 47% to less than 3%.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, claiming ICE rigged its software to migrants behind bars longer than ordinarily allowed.

The class action, filed by the NYCLU alongside Bronx Defenders, centers on ICE’s Risk Classification Assessment system. The RCA software, writes Gizmodo, uses algorithms to determine when immigrants should be released.

But if the lawsuit’s to be believed, ICE has rigged its own software to always deny release requests.

Whether ICE is violating its own protocol or not, there’s no doubt the Trump administration has emboldened the agency to push the limits of its authority. In the past several years, ICE has enacted weeping measures to fuel its crackdown on migrants. According to Gizmodo, the agency has, among other things, purchased $30 million dollars’ worth of phone-hacking technology. It’s also used Facebook to set up dragnets, manipulated social media for sting operations, and pressured the Office of Refugee Resettlement to share information on unaccompanied, undocumented youth.

On top of that, ICE has repeatedly petitioned states for access to motorist databases and sought access to license plate reading systems. Gizmodo says the agency also wants to collect DNA from migrants and asylum-seekers who move through an estimated 200 holding facilities nationwide.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer. Image via US-ICE/Flickr. Public domain.

A 2018 report by Reuters explains how ICE is now trying to use its Risk Classification System to ensure that migrants who might otherwise be released remain in custody.

Some time in 2018, reports Reuters, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers at its New York field office tweaked their version of the RCA. Before the change, the system would determine whether a migrant should be “detained” or “release.” Whether a migrant might be released was determined by several variables, including their criminal history, if any, alongside their perceived flight risk.

But after 2018, RCA was modified—it now defaults to “detain.” The only way to change the system’s default decision is with a supervisor override.

There’s no regular avenue by which migrants, their family or attorneys can challenge the RCA’s categorization, and, by extension, their continued incarceration.

According to the NYCLU, ICE’s New York division released about 47% of all registered detainees between 2013 and June 2017. After the RCA was reconfigured, the release rate dropped to three percent.

“The No-Release Policy is particularly egregious in light of the fact that the government’s own data reveal that many of the jailed individuals present little or no threat to public safety or risk of flight,” the NYCLU and Bronx Defenders wrote in the lawsuit. “[…] This dramatic drop in the release rate comes at a time when exponentially more people are being arrested in the New York City area and immigration officials have expanded arrests of those not convicted of criminal offenses.”

The Verge quotes NYCLU staff attorney Amy Belsher, who alleges that ICE has violated detainees’ Fifth Amendment rights, as well as numerous other federal regulations.

“ICE is legally required to make individual assessments and cannot outsource its statutory and constitutional duties to a rigged algorithm,” Belsher said, adding that RCA’s sole purpose seems to be “[providing] a veneer of objectivity and fairness to a process that it lacks entirely.”


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