Congressman Questions Why Americans Detained by U.S. Are 'All... Latinos'

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Matthew Albence faced a tough grilling from Democratic California Rep. Pete Aguilar after he maintained that U.S. immigration authorities release anyone who "looks to be" an American citizen.

The exchange came during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Thursday, when Albence faced questioning on ICE's role in helping detain an 18-year-old Dallas-born citizen, Francisco Erwin Galicia, who was released on Tuesday after being held in federal custody for three weeks.

"ICE has a history of incorrectly detaining U.S. citizens," Aguilar began. "Two citizens in my district were detained by ICE and were later awarded settlements to compensate them for the arrest," he said.

Noting that ICE still hasn't provided statistics on the detention of U.S. citizens, which it was supposed to provide to Congress by May, Aguilar asked why any U.S. citizen would be held by ICE if they can prove their citizenship with a passport or birth certificate.

Saying he would look into the status of the reports on the detention of citizens, Albence asserted that ICE has a specific policy with regards to "how we handle individuals who are making claims to the United States citizenship that are in our custody."

"ICE does not have the lawful authority to say anybody is or is not a citizen," he said.

"What we do is, when we are provided with probative evidence that an individual in our custody is—looks to be a citizen—we will release that individual from custody," he said.

While Albence appeared to be suggesting that ICE releases those who provide evidence they are citizens, Aguilar took direct issue with his phrasing, asserting: "What troubled me with your answer is someone 'looks to be a citizen.'"

He then listed nine U.S. citizens who had been detained for more than a day.

"These are U.S. citizens or people who were born in the United States or have been naturalized," he said. "These are individuals who told your officers that they were U.S. citizens and you're talking within the process of this, that you advance it when they 'look to be a citizen.'"

"It strikes me that all of these individuals are Latinos," he said, referring to his list.

Defending his comments, Albence said he was "not referring to anybody's appearance."

"That was clear if anyone listened to the context," he maintained. "I'm saying when we review the individual, look at their documentation, if the document shows that they have evidence, probative evidence of being a citizen, that's when we release them from custody."

During the exchange, Albence also argued that "a lot of people that end up being citizens in our custody didn't even know they were citizens."

"It's very complex," he said. "And some of the individuals don't even know they're citizens until we actually start to investigate their background and we realize they are, in fact, a citizen."

The ICE chief later expanded on those comments, asserting: "I can tell you from my experience, many individuals who are citizens in a border environment, primarily when they're involved in criminal activity, will claim to be a non-citizen, especially when they're Mexican."

"They would claim to be a Mexican national because they would get turned around five hours later, they weren't going to get prosecuted and they could come back in at will."

"Look, We have no lawful authority to hold U.S. citizens. We don't want to hold U.S. citizens," Albence said. "That is not our business or our job, but we have to look at the evidence that's available to us."

Asked what type of racial profiling education ICE agents and officers receive "specifically applying to U.S. citizens," Albence said: "There's no tolerance for racial profiling in ICE."

"It starts at the basic training level where our officers and agents receive training on racial profiling at the very beginning of their law enforcement career," he said.

"We abide by DHS policy, we abide by DOJ policy with regard to racial profiling or cases that are being prosecuted and it is continually something that is stressed in our in-service trainings. We have supervisory schools. We have law enforcement training. There is no tolerance for racial profiling," he said.

The headline of this article has been updated for clarity.

Matthew Albence
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Matthew Albence testifies before the House Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill July 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty