The Criminal Alien Program: Big, Old, and Misunderstood

In a new report, The Criminal Alien Program: Immigration Enforcement in Travis County, Texas, the Immigration Policy Center (IPC) and author Andrea Guttin examine the Criminal Alien Program (CAP)—which may be one of the oldest, biggest, and least understood federal immigration enforcement program. While it is ubiquitous in U.S. prisons and jails, very few are aware that it exists or of how it works.

So what, exactly, is CAP and how does it work? CAP is an ICE initiative that screens inmates in prisons and jails, identifies deportable non-citizens, and places them into deportation proceedings. CAP is also one of 14 federal/local law enforcement programs under the umbrella of ICE ACCESS (Agreements in Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security).

According to the IPC report:

CAP is the program responsible 48% of all deportable immigrants identified by ICE in FY 2009—more than the 287(g) program, Fugitive Operations, and the Office of Field Operations combined.

Prisons and jails that participate in CAP provide ICE with a list of people who have been arrested and booked into jail, and ICE agents then interview the arrestees. After ICE interviews the arrested person, they may place an immigration hold (known as a “detainer) on those who are suspected of being deportable. An immigration detainer is an official request from ICE to another law enforcement agency—such as a state or local jail —that ICE requests custody of the individual once he or she is released from local custody.

In the years since CAP was initiated, there have been concerns about whether or not ICE is actually targeting immigrants with serious criminal records. While ICE claims that CAP’s focus is “dangerous criminal aliens,” the data show that legal as well as unauthorized immigrants with a wide range of criminal history—or no criminal history at all—are being identified for deportation.

The IPC report finds:

  • A large percentage of immigrants apprehended under CAP are not criminals at all. An October 2009 DHS report found that 57 percent of immigrants identified through the CAP program in FY 2009 had no criminal convictions, up from 53 percent in FY 2008.
  • In Travis County, Texas, a majority of immigrants placed under detainer were arrested for a misdemeanor as their most serious charge. In 2008, 58 percent of the detainers were placed on those charged with misdemeanors—up from 38 percent in 2007 and 34 percent in 2006.

Just like with Secure Communities and the 287(g) program, there are multiple concerns about how CAP is being implemented. Some feel that local police may engage in racial profiling and pretextual arrests in order to get individuals they suspect of being deportable immigrants into jail so they can be screened through the CAP program. Others are concerned that vulnerable populations and immigrant communities will not cooperate with local police if CAP is present in local jails, jeopardizing the safety of entire communities.

Many have also raised questions regarding ICE’s use of immigration detainers. While thousands of detainers are issued every year, many—including law enforcement officers—are unclear about how detainers work. Immigrants under detainer include both legal and unauthorized immigrants, and they often endure long periods of detention, and may be denied bail and other due process rights. (IPC has a fact sheet to help answer some of the frequent questions surrounding detainers.)


Of course, identifying and removing dangerous criminal threats must be a priority for ICE. However, time and time again data show that their methods for prioritizing these individuals are flawed and have negative consequences for noncriminals who get caught in the system. While the new report includes recommendations for how ICE might improve the way CAP is administered, CAP will continue to be problematic unless we pass comprehensive immigration reform—reform that creates a well-functioning immigration system.

Michele Waslin

Republished with permission from Immigration Impact.


  1. says

    It’s sad that the U.S. still treats our next-door neighbors in Mexico as criminals, when their foisting of the U.S.-Mexico border on them in 1848 has caused it to turn into a magnet for criminals in the first place. Any giant system that is unwisely run will crush the little guy, but the question is how to fix the system? Simple: the 7-step nonpartisan Megamerge Dissolution Solution of Congress working with the people of Mexico to agree to dissolve their ever-corrupt govt. and failed country in favor of joining the U.S. as 10+ new states, after which all 414 million Americans can finally work to share the New World in peace and prosperity. Study the online MMDS proposal and tell your reps there’s a way to fix the system that’s permanent not temporary. Click

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