New System for Finding Immigration Detainees

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) runs an enormous system of detention facilities to house the thousands of immigrants it takes into custody each year, for a variety of reasons, ranging from unauthorized entry into the United States, to assertion of an asylum claim, among many other grounds. In recent years, as the detention system has grown, it has faced increasing criticism from human rights watchdogs who have decried the dehumanizing and prison-like conditions that prevail in these detention facilities – especially the lack of access to prompt medical treatment.

In recent months, ICE has been working to reform its immigration detention system, implementing new policies and procedures to improve medical care, make employees more accountable, and to enhance its protection of vulnerable detainee populations, such as women and non-criminal detainees. (See DHS Announces Immigration Detention Reforms, MurthyDotCom, 06.Nov.2009.)

These reforms still did not address one of the biggest complaints about the immigration detention system: its lack of transparency. When an immigrant is arrested and packed off to immigration detention, family members can find it extremely difficult to find the loved one. Detainees often lack access to legal counsel, a situation further complicated by a system that frequently transfers detainees across a far-flung archipelago of detention sites. An immigrant arrested in New York City might wind up several states away at a detention facility in the rural South, with little or no access to legal representation.

On July 23rd, ICE announced a program designed to make it easier for family members, attorneys, and other stakeholders to find people ensnared by the immigration detention system: the new Online Detainee Locator System (ODLS), a searchable internet database that lists detainees in ICE custody. (See ICE News Release, ICE announces launch of Online Detainee Locator System, 23.Jul.2010.) According to ICE, detainees can be located in two ways, either by entering the country of birth and alien registration number (“A-number”), or by entering the first and last name, country of birth, and date of birth. When the system finds a match, showing that a particular person is “in custody,” it will provide the name of the detention facility where the individual is located, and information about how to contact the facility. If the system indicates that the person is “not in custody,” this means that s/he was released from ICE custody within the last 60 days, or may no longer in the United States. (See ICE Brochure: How Do I Locate Someone In Immigration Detention? PDF 757KB). In some cases, detainees shown as “released from custody” may have been transferred into the custody of another law-enforcement agency.

ICE points out that not everyone in ICE custody will be listed on the ODLS system; ICE may exercise its discretion not to list a detainee, and may routinely keep certain classes of detainees – such as juveniles – unavailable to the ODLS search function, due to concerns about safety and security. ICE also cautioned that individuals recently detained may not show up on the system for several hours, depending on processing and upload time. Further information is available at

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.