How to Help a Detainee in an Immigration Hold

If someone you know has been detained after an immigration hold, here are the first things to do.

By , Attorney · Case Western Reserve University School of Law

If an undocumented friend or relative of yours has been detained in the United States after an immigration hold, here are some answers to your likely questions about what's going on; as well as the first things to do to help the person.

What Is an Immigration Hold?

An immigration hold (also called a detainer) refers to when an undocumented or illegal immigrant who is already in jail is held after a criminal charge, often past the person's scheduled release date, for transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The hold lasts for 48 hours, during which time ICE is supposed to pick the person up. (If it doesn't, then technically you can argue for release, but doing so usually triggers ICE picking the person up anyway.)

ICE commonly checks on who the police have put in jail and whether they are in valid immigration status. It's among ICE's strategies for apprehending undocumented persons (sometimes called aliens). Even people with green cards (lawful permanent residence) can have immigration holds placed on them, if they committed the type of crime for which a foreign national can be deported.

The placement of an immigration hold can be disappointing for friends and relatives. Just when you thought the person was going to get out of jail or prison, they're transferred to an Immigration Custom Enforcement (ICE) detention center. These detention centers are separate from ordinary jails, and often located in distant locations; sometimes in other states from where the non-citizen has been living.

Will the Non-Citizen Be Deported Right Away?

A person held by ICE ordinarily has a right to have their immigration case heard before an immigration judge. There's an exception, however, if an order of removal (deportation) is already outstanding against the person. In that case, the non-citizen likely has no right to further hearings, and will be deported from the United States soon.

If Not Deported Right Away, Will the Person Be Given Hearings Regarding Bond and Other Immigration Legal Matters?

Assuming the non-citizen isn't deported from the U.S. right away as described above, hearings will indeed be part of the follow-up procedures.

The first hearing before an immigration court judge will be a short one. Its purpose is to set a bond amount for the person's release from detention while awaiting the next hearing. If your relative qualifies for bond, they will be released once the bond amount is paid, often with certain conditions and supervision, such as electronic monitoring or check-ins with ICE.

Some detainees, who do not have removal orders, are nonetheless ineligible for bond, and are subject to mandatory detention for certain crimes.

While your friend or relative is permitted to have a lawyer represent them, they will not get a free court-appointed lawyer like in criminal cases.

The next court hearing will fully cover the merits of the person's case. With the help of a lawyer, your friend family member might be able to argue against removal. For example, it might be possible to show the judge that the non-citizen actually has a right to a green card or, if they already have a green card, that the crime committed is not actually enough to make a person deportable.

The hearings will be scheduled automatically, unless your friend or family member makes the mistake of signing a document agreeing to be voluntarily removed from the United States. For more detail on the process, see The Immigration Hold Process After Jail.

What Family Members and Friends Can Do to Help a Detained Non-Citizen

If someone you know has been detained after an immigration hold, the first thing to do is to find out, if possible, which detention center the person has been transferred to. ICE's online detainee locator can help with this, but you'll need personal information, and the system isn't entirely reliable and often takes a few days to update. To use the locator, you can either search by a person's alien number and country of birth, or name and country of birth. You can also use the ICE Detention Center website to find the list of detention facilities, their addresses, and their phone numbers.

If your relative calls you, ask for details. Also advise them not to sign anything until you have gotten an attorney to consult with you.

Be warned: Transfer between detention facilities is not uncommon for ICE to do, on short notice. Even after you figure out where your family member is today, they could be moved to another facility tomorrow, with little warning.

Consult an immigration attorney as soon as possible, preferably as soon as your friend or relative is arrested. Agreeing to a guilty plea to avoid jail time can backfire if it leads to deportation. In fact, look for an attorney who has a subspecialty in how the immigration laws treat criminal matters. The attorney can help you figure out which facility your relative is being held at (though doing this can even be challenging for attorneys) and prepare a defense against any upcoming removal proceedings.

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