A Stroll Through ICE's Online Detention Locator System

By David North on July 28, 2010

ICE has just opened its Online Detention Locator System (ODLS) and I was curious about its contents and its utility. It tells people on the outside the names of those inside the ICE facilities.

Without having any detailed information on the detention system to compare it with, I found ODLS easier to use, more informative, and more accessible than I had expected. I also found it providing much more data (on different subjects, of course) than what one can glean from its sister agency, USCIS, a point to which I will return later.

The ODLS home page offers, appropriately, a choice of English or Spanish; I chose the former.

Then you are given two ways of searching for your detainee of choice. You can provide the A-number and country of birth; or you can fill in the person's first and last names, and country of birth.

I don't happen to know anyone in any of the ICE slammers so I feared my exploration of the e-system would die at birth, but it did not. I wondered if it might tell me about a prisoner from Mexico with a Bill Smith/Tom Jones sort of name in Spanish. That idea worked like a charm.

Using the Spanish equivalents, I asked the machine to tell me the location of Bill Smith and Tom Jones, and then I asked where they were located. It identified eight men that ICE knew about with those kinds of names. I will not use the actual ones, out of respect for the prisoners' privacy.

What surprised me was that ICE let me do what I wanted to do without barriers. I did not have the A-number or the date of birth of the names I asked about, but I was let into the system anyway. Also I was not asked to identify myself, though the system may have recorded my computer information without my knowledge.

It turned out that four of the eight men were in custody, and the other four had recently been in custody. For three of the first four it told me where they were detained, and in the case of the fourth, it gave me a phone number I could call to find out. (He was only 18 but that may have had nothing to do with the non-listing of his detention center.)

Beyond the men's names, countries, and years of birth, the system told me nothing of why they were detained or how long they would be there, but it did provide a lot of straightforward information on the rules in the detention centers and their locations.

There are different sets of rules for different kinds of visitors. Family or friends, for instance, can visit the Mira Loma Center (at the edge of the Mojave Desert north of L.A.) only between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends. But lawyers, clergymen, and consular officials can visit at any hour or the day or night, though appointments are needed. There was to be no physical contact with, and no gifts for, the prisoners. You can send money, too, but not cash.

I found that the eight guys that I had located by chance were 18 to 45 years of age, with four of them being 37, 40, 40, and 45 respectively, an older bunch than I would have expected. I can tell you nothing more about any of them.

My CIS colleague, Jessica Vaughan, told me that ICE is not the first penal system to provide this kind of information. Various state systems have done something comparable for years.

The outpouring of information on the prisoners and the detention centers by ICE is in sharp contrast to the don't-tell-anyone-much-of-anything posture of USCIS. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, a coyote on the outside wanting to reach out to a fellow coyote on the inside can use the new system to locate his buddy and keep him sweet with a flow of money . . .

But let's suppose an attorney wants to know which other attorneys are good at, say, immigrant investors' cases, and feels he needs to talk to such a lawyer. Well, he cannot get the names of lawyers winning such cases from the UCCIS appeals unit, the Office of Administrative Appeals (OAA). That is the case because OAA scrubs off the names of lawyers, migrants, and other parties from the records maintained by that office. You can see for yourself here.

Typically courts record the names of lawyers along with those of their clients.

Similarly, while the State Department routinely publishes information on the number of visa applications approved and denied by category, USCIS will not release comparable information about its decisions about petitions, by category.

So the law-breaking coyote gets the information he wants from ICE but the law-abiding attorney or researcher cannot get roughly similar information from USCIS. Odd.