Need to Find Relative Arrested by Immigration? See Online Detainee Locator

usmexicoSometimes what’s going in in the headlines becomes all too personal. That’s what happened for me recently, when a friend called to say that her cleaning woman from El Salvador was in a panic, having received word that her sisters had been arrested by immigration authorities after crossing the border into Texas. They’re apparently part of the flood of young people fleeing countries beset by violence, attempting to cross the Mexican border into the United States.

The first question then becomes, “Where are they?”

Back when I was actively practicing immigration law, this question could take days of calling detention centers and desperately begging information out of disinterested guards and officials. But now there’s an “Online Detainee Locator” provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Would it work?

At first, no. (Probably not too surprising — data entry may not be the first thing on the to-do list after an immigrant is arrested.) But within about 15 hours, voila — we entered a name and birth date and received the name of the detention facility where one sister was being held, as well as a phone number for reaching that facility. The U.S.-based sister was able to call the facility and get more information about the status of her sister’s case.

Whether the online system is always this workable, I can’t say. It’s easy to imagine situations where the name might be misspelled, or a birth date taken down inaccurately, leading to a complete info void.

And an even more difficult aspect of the system is that it’s mostly in English. Yes, you can choose other languages from a dropdown menu when you first perform the search, but as far as I could tell, this doesn’t lead to any different screens when it’s time for the results.

Still, it was immensely satisfying to see the name pop up and know that, as alarming as the news of the arrest was, the sister hadn’t just disappeared into the system. Now, if Congress would only come up with an intelligent and humane way to deal with this influx.