What to do if you’re stopped by Immigration officers

(Photo via Department of Homeland Security)A quick guide to your rights as a non-citizen living in the US.  Leer en Español

A few months ago, I was walking to my car in the pre-dawn cold, headed to the “Women in the World” breakfast held by the Seattle International Foundation. Suddenly I saw two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers headed towards me.

Their presence filled me with fear. As they approached, all I was thinking was how to avoid hurting anyone with my answers.

My parents and I migrated to the US six years ago from Michoacán, Mexico, followed by my sister and her husband a year later. Because my father was already a permanent resident living in Tacoma for 5 years, we were granted green cards as well. The only problem is that my brother-in-law is not a permanent resident.

So my heart was racing as the officers questioned me, with the knowledge that my answers could harm my family.

I believe that the immigration officers stop me based on my appearance. They started asking me about my legal situation and my family. I didn’t know how to act, or if I should tell the truth or a lie. But I remember one of the officers warned me that if I lied, they would find out and it would just make things worse.

The author's niece and nephew, outside the Tacoma apartment building where they were interrogated. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)
The author’s niece and nephew, outside the Tacoma apartment building where they were interrogated. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)

They took me back into my house to question me further. They searched the entire apartment and found my nephew and my niece, 5 and 3 years respectively, sleeping. They questioned my brother in law my sister about their legal situation. The questions continued for more than an hour.

In the end, it turned out they were looking for someone else, a neighbor across the hallway. Officials mistook my brother-in-law for him based on their similar appearance. After a bunch of phone calls, they realized that he was not the person they were looking for and finally left.

After the incident I talked Alejandro Villacorta, an immigration attorney at the office where I recently started working, to clarify my doubts about what I should have done. He told me that this kind of ‘fishing’ to catch undocumented immigrants is illegal, but that it is common practice by many ICE officers to intimidate and people and watch their reactions.

ICE public affairs officer Andrew Munoz confirms that, like all federal law enforcement officers, ICE officers are prohibited from racial profiling. He recommends that individuals who believe they’ve been subject to racial profiling file a report with the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility.

Regardless, this is experience not uncommon. Many of my friends have been through something similar, as have thousands of people across the country.

So with the help of Alma Coria a paralegal at Villacorta & Bailey Law, I put together this list of tips for what to do if you’re questioned or detained by ICE:

1) No ICE officer should stop anybody based on appearance alone; regardless of your ethnicity, the color of your skin, the way you dress or talk or the language you’re speaking. It’s the law.

2) If an immigration officer asks for proof that you are a legal resident of the United States and wants to see some identification, you have the right to refuse to give them your ID.  You can also refuse to answer any of their questions. Unless they have a warrant, you have no obligation to interact with them at all. You can ask “Am I arrested?” If the answer is no, you do not need to know give them any information regarding your legal status in the U.S. Showing them ID is totally optional.

3) If you are being interrogated do not give false information, and do not give them false documentation. You can be charged with identity theft if you show them forged documents, or someone else’s documents, even if you have legal status. Remember that everything you say or do can be used against you.

4) If immigration officials (ICE) begin to knock on your door you have the right not to open the door. They only have the right to enter to your home if they have a warrant from a judge.

People arrested by Immigration in Western Washington are usually taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)
People arrested by Immigration in Western Washington are usually taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)

5) If you are arrested in an immigration detention center and you don’t want to return to your home country, you have the right to request a meeting with an immigration officer.

6) Do not sign anything you don’t understand. You might be signing a voluntary deportation order.

7) Some cases can be resolved with the help of an immigration attorney. The lawyer can request for a court date to meet with an immigration judge and help solve your case. You don’t have the right to an attorney provided by the state, but you do have the right to see your own attorney. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (206) 587 4009 or (800) 445 5771 and Tinoco Law Office (253) 301-4925 and can help with legal advice and finding an immigration lawyer.

8) Who should you call: Your family member to contact an immigration lawyer. When you enter an immigration center, they will assign you an A#, which is you’re alien number. Make sure you give you’re A# to the people you talk to on the outside helping with your case. If you have no one else to call you should call Northwest Immigrant Rights Project at (253) 383 0519. Phone calls from the Tacoma Detention Center are $5 per minute.

To learn more about your rights and immigration policies visit:




To find information about a specific detainee at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma:  https://locator.ice.gov/odls/homePage.do


    1. Thank you so much for reading it, I hope it was helpful for your students. I am working in a project right now that you might be interest on, can I e-mail you the details?

  1. Hi Liliana

    Thanks for the nice write-up. What should I do or who should I call if I am denied re-entry to US by customs officer although I have all required legal documents and valid visa? My visa status is F1 and right now I am working under STEM-OPT. It will be helpful if you email your response. I will re-enter through Atlanta, GA airport.

    Appreciate your feedback.

  2. Hi liliana.. I been here in the US all of my life. My parents brought me to california wen i was 4 months old and left wen i was 14 due the increasing violence…. Brought us to washington.. I been here for 14 yrs and i have had a few brush in with the law as any other teenager would mostly for driving .. But is there any steps i can take to remain here. Havent been no were else.

  3. Hi, my uncle who live here in the US for almost 17 years as illegal alien would like to go back now to the Philippines and not to wait for any deportation. Can he just buy a one way ticket to manila and submit himself to the airport for voluntary deportation? is the immigration officer will hold him for interrogation, investigation or jail him for this action?
    Thank you very much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.