WASHINGTON (AP) — The acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Thursday criticized a judge's ruling barring his agency from relying solely on databases that have at times led to the wrongful detention of American citizens.
Speaking Thursday at the White House, Matthew Albence called the September ruling an example of "judicial overreach" that threatened public safety.
Following Albence was a Texas sheriff who suggested the ruling would require releasing jailed immigrants who were "drunks" and would "run over your children," a comment that was immediately denounced by advocates.
U.S. District Judge André Birotte Jr. barred ICE from issuing requests known as "detainers" based solely on database searches considered to be unreliable. The ruling applies to states that do not explicitly authorize civil immigration arrests using detainers.
ICE cross-checks jail rosters around the U.S. with federal databases that track people's nationality and immigration status. When it detects that a person is unauthorized to be in the U.S., ICE will issue a detainer asking the agency to hold the person until he or she can be taken into immigration custody.
Advocates say relying on electronic databases alone to issue detainers is unreliable because they often have erroneous data and can lead to falsely accusing people of being in the U.S. illegally.
Citing ICE's data, Birotte wrote that 42 detainers between May 2015 and February 2016 were explicitly lifted because the person was a citizen. Nearly 800 detainers out of almost 13,000 issued during that time were withdrawn because the person was a citizen "or otherwise not subject to removal," the judge wrote.
Asked about the detention of Americans, Albence said he could not speak about ongoing litigation.
"Many times, individuals that we come across that are United States citizens don't even know that they are because the laws around citizenship are so complicated," he said.
President Donald Trump — as well as his top officials and allies — has long assailed judges who have ruled against his administration's efforts to restrict immigration and ramp up arrests and deportations.
Jennie Pasquarella, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which helped bring the lawsuit, said the ruling was "critical to protecting the rights of everyone" and ensuring that ICE does not subject people to baseless arrests and detention.
U.S. immigration agencies earlier this year detained an American-born 18-year-old for more than three weeks even though he had copies of paperwork documenting his citizenship.
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A Democratic congresswoman from California visiting a Border Patrol processing center in South Texas in July encountered a 13-year-old girl holding a U.S. passport next to her mother, who had been accused of crossing the border illegally.
Albence spoke next to local sheriffs from around the U.S. who are cooperating with ICE. As the agency has faced resistance to its operations in some parts of the country, the Trump administration has held several White House events featuring local officials who support its immigration priorities.
Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn of Fort Worth, Texas, said many unauthorized immigrants in his jail were accused of felonies like murder and sexual assault as well as drunken-driving offenses. He said Birotte's ruling "will put our communities in jeopardy."
"If we have to turn them loose or they get released, they're coming back to your neighborhood and my neighborhood," he said. "These drunks will run over your children, and they will run over my children."
Waybourn said about 7% of the 4,200 people currently detained in Tarrant County are in the U.S. illegally. His office issued a statement saying that nearly 25% of the unauthorized immigrants jailed in Tarrant County were accused of driving while intoxicated or being a DWI "repeat offender."
The sheriff also acknowledged that many people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border migrate "looking for a better day, for something better for their family."
Texas State Rep. Chris Turner, whose district includes Tarrant County, tweeted that the comments were "ignorant, irresponsible fear-mongering" in light of the August mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where a gunman alleged to have targeted Mexicans killed 22 people.
Pasquarella said Waybourn's statement was "fueled by xenophobia and racism."
"They're applying this narrative they would never apply to citizens just because they're not citizens," she said.
Merchant reported from Houston.