What Happens When an Undocumented Immigrant Is Caught

Know your rights if you're picked up by ICE

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One of the greatest fears that undocumented immigrants have is being caught by U.S. immigration authorities. Often, this fear stems from the belief that they will immediately be deported to their home country without the chance to say goodbye to family and loved ones. Other times, it is the fear of the unknown, as in, "What will happen to me if I am caught?"

The good news is that undocumented immigrants have certain rights when arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This agency must follow established procedures to help protect those rights.

ICE Arrests and 48-Hour Detainers

There are a number of ways that an undocumented immigrant can come into ICE custody. For instance, you may be arrested during a workplace raid. Or, you may be arrested at your home. Keep in mind that if an immigration officer comes to your home, you do not have to let the officer in unless he or she has a warrant. Because of their enforcement priorities and limited resources, ICE officers are more likely to look for you in your home if you have been convicted of a crime.

Additionally, the initial arrest of an undocumented immigrant may not necessarily be by ICE. You may be taken into custody by another law enforcement agency -- for example, state or local police, following a criminal arrest or even a minor traffic violation. If you are within a hundred miles of the border, be aware that officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“Border Patrol”) are out there looking for undocumented immigrants as well.

After you are arrested, the police may decide to contact ICE if they believe that you are an undocumented immigrant, or ICE may contact the police if they want to interview you regarding your immigration status. This most often happens when jails input detainee information into databases shared with ICE. In such cases, ICE will file what's called a "detainer." This means that ICE cannot get to you immediately, but is asking the police or jail to hold you for an additional amount of time so that ICE can interview you at a later time to determine whether or not to place you into removal (deportation) proceedings.

Under the law, the maximum amount of additional time that you can be held on ICE's behalf is 48 hours. If ICE does not take custody of you within those 48 hours, the law says you must be released.

ICE does not always put everyone they arrest into custody. Sometimes they let people, especially parents with young children, go home. ICE will gather information about you and can still try to deport you, but at least you won’t have to spend any time in an immigration jail. 

Placement Into Removal Proceedings

Once an undocumented immigrant is arrested, the ICE deportation officer will make an initial determination as to whether to place the person into removal proceedings and, if so, how to charge the person. Most often, the charge will be unlawful entry into the U.S., overstaying a nonimmigrant visa, or one of various criminal grounds, if you were previously arrested and convicted of a crime.

To initiate removal proceedings, the deportation officer will serve you and the immigration court with a Notice to Appear (NTA). The Notice to Appear lists the immigration-related charges against you. You then have the right to see an immigration judge. The immigration judge does not work for ICE — he or she is part of the U.S. Department of Justice and is there to give you a fair trial.

If you do not agree with the charges, you can fight them. Even if the charges are correct, you may still be eligible for relief from removal. For a discussion of possible defenses, see “Possible Defenses to Deportation of an Undocumented Alien.”

Removal proceedings can be lengthy, sometimes taking years to complete. As long as you do not have a prior order of removal, nor sign agreement to your deportation or accept voluntary departure, you will not be immediately deported just because you are caught.

Release on Immigration Bond

If you are in immigration custody, one of the first things that the deportation officer will do is determine whether or not to allow you pay a bond ("bail") and if so, how much. A bond will allow you to be released from custody and return to your home in the U.S. while removal proceedings are pending.

When determining whether to grant a bond and what amount of bond to grant, the officer will consider two things:

  • the risk that you will miss your immigration hearings, and
  • the danger to the community if you are released.

A conviction on your record for certain types of crimes can make you ineligible for a bond.

If the deportation officer refuses to grant you a bond, you have the right to ask an immigration judge to reconsider this decision. Additionally, if the deportation officer grants you a bond but it is too high for your family and friends to pay, you can ask an immigration judge to lower the bond. An immigrant bond can range anywhere from $1,500 to $25,000 depending on the individual circumstances of your case.

Contacting Family or Friends

When an undocumented immigration is taken into custody by ICE, he or she has the right to call a family member, friend, employer, or lawyer. You will have the opportunity to let someone know where you are so that they can assist you. When you are first detained by ICE, you have the right to make one free, local phone call. Afterwards, you are responsible for the cost of telephone calls, either by establishing an inmate account or by making collect telephone calls.

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