Immigration and Customs Enforcement detains thousands of people each year who are waiting for their deportation cases to begin. The number of people locked up is now, under the Trump administration, at its highest in history.

We think we know one reason why.

When ICE detains someone for deportation proceedings, it is supposed to quickly evaluate whether or not that person has one of several types of criminal convictions that trigger mandatory detention. If they do, they would be kept in jail until they see a judge. If that person does not, they could be eligible to pay bond and go home while their case proceeds.

But that has changed. These days, ICE is barely releasing anyone on bond. Reuters reported that the number of immigrants with no criminal history who ICE booked into detention tripled in a year to more than 43,000 from 2016 to 2017. This fall, the total number of people in ICE detention each day reached its highest point ever.

Part of the problem is that ICE rigged its own computer program.

Since 2013 ICE has used a computer program known as the Risk Classification Assessment Tool in deciding whether someone should be released. ICE feeds information about a person into the system, and an algorithm spits out a recommendation: detention or release on bond. In 2017, ICE manipulated the computer program to get rid of the release option.

The decisions about whether people can be released are happening behind a wall of secrecy, with the odds stacked against detained immigrants.

The program now automatically recommends that all immigrants be detained. An ICE officer reviewing their case has to manually override the recommendation. The impact has been dramatic.

In July, the New York Civil Liberties Union submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to ICE about its changes to the Risk Classification Assessment tool and the outcomes and policies of ICE’s custody determination process. These are essential to understanding the huge and growing number of people detained, which in turn contributes to immigration court backlogs and long detention times.

We got radio silence.

The decisions about whether people can be released are happening behind a wall of secrecy, with the odds stacked against detained immigrants. The public needs to know more about how ICE makes decisions about whether or not to release people, and why so many who are eligible for release continue to be detained.

Since we couldn’t get answers directly, we’ve gone to court. Today, we sued to force ICE to explain itself.

The human toll of the recent change is significant. When ICE decides not to release someone after their initial assessment, they remain incarcerated until their first appearance before an immigration judge, the next opportunity to seek release.

The time between when people are detained and when they first see a judge is growing longer and longer. In the New York City area the median wait time is now 80 days — up from 42 days just a year ago, and 11 days in 2014. In November the NYCLU, the Bronx Defenders, and the Cardozo Law Immigration Justice Clinic filed a class action lawsuit over the extreme delays immigrants detained in New York face.

Immigrants now trapped in ICE custody while their cases proceed are often people who have lived here for decades who have families, homes, and jobs. In some cases they are young people who were brought here as children, asylum seekers fleeing persecution, and sometimes even permanent residents or U.S. citizens who are not removable at all.

While they wait in jail, these people often lose their jobs, homes, and the opportunity to put together a strong case to defend their right to stay in this country.

We have the right to know whether lives are being upended simply because ICE is playing a rigged game.

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The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

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