On November 5, 40-year-old Antonio Montejano was holiday shopping with his four children at a Los Angeles mall and unintentionally dropped a $10 bottle of cologne that his young daughter begged him to buy into a bag of items he had already purchased. Upon leaving the store, Montejano was stopped by security guards and arrested for shoplifting. He assumed the ordeal would end quickly since he had no prior criminal record. Instead he spent two nights in a Santa Monica, CA police station followed by another two nights in a Los Angeles county jail on suspicion of being an undocumented immigrant.
Montejano pleaded with officers about his citizenship, presenting them with his driver’s license and other legal identification, but they wouldn't budge. “I told every officer I was in front of that I’m an American citizen, and they didn’t believe me,” Montejano told the New York Times. He believes his detention was a direct result of his ethnicity. “I look Mexican 100 percent,” he says.
Because of an “immigration detainer,” Montejano was denied bail and held even after a criminal court judge canceled his fine and ordered his release. He was finally freed on November 9, following intervention from the American Civil Liberties Union, which sent a copy of his passport and birth certificate to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
This is the second time Montejano, who was born in Los Angeles, has been mistakenly targeted by immigration authorities. They failed to recognize his citizenship in 1996 as well, prompting his wrongful deportation to Mexico. The ACLU discovered that his records were never corrected, which explains why his arrest led to a positive match in the DHS database. ?
Montejano's mistaken imprisonment comes on top of an explosion in immigration detentions and deportations in recent years, as well as federal immigration programs that rely on participation with local law enforcement. He is just one of the hundreds of thousands of people, mostly undocumented immigrants, whose lives and families are torn apart each year by our dysfunctional immigration system.
“Secure Communities” is the latest of these controversial programs, introduced and piloted by the Bush administration in 14 jurisdictions beginning in 2008. According to an October 2011 report by researchers at UC-Berkeley School of Law, “Secure communities by the numbers,” the program has "expanded dramatically" under President Obama and is currently "active in 1,595 jurisdictions in 44 states and territories, a 65% increase since the beginning of this year." Since the beginning of Obama's term, his administration has overseen the deportation of 1.1 million people, “the highest number in six decades" according to the New York Times. ICE is so pleased with Secure Communities, it plans to expand its reach to all US jurisdictions by 2013.
The program requires local jails to crosscheck fingerprints of jailed individuals with Homeland Security's immigration database. If a positive match is found, federal immigration officials can issue detainers that authorize local law enforcement to hold the suspect in custody for up to 48 hours.
However, the DHS database is riddled with flaws, as demonstrated by the growing number of US citizen being wrongfully tagged. The New York Times notes, “Unlike the federal criminal databases administered by the FBI, Homeland Security records include all immigration transactions, not just violations. An immigrant who has always maintained legal status, including those who naturalized to become American citizens, can still trigger a fingerprint match.”
Although it's difficult to obtain an exact number of Americans illegally detained by ICE, Jacqueline Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University estimates that over 4,000 US citizens were detained or deported in 2010 alone. According to a study published by Stevens last spring, this raises the total number of American citizens detained or deported since 2003 to well over 20,000.
The Times points out that “Any case where an American is held, even briefly, for immigration investigation is a potential wrongful arrest because immigration agents lack legal authority to detain citizens.” Stevens has even referred to the “potential wrongful arrest” of US citizens as “kidnapping” because “ICE has no jurisdiction over U.S. citizens.”
Furthermore, wrongful detention and deportation is not limited to US citizens with easily accessible state-issued identification in their wallets. As Joshua Holland notes, "permanent residents, students, tourists, and people seeking asylum from torture and persecution are also swept up in the maw of Homeland Security in not-insignificant numbers." If American citizens, like Montejano, who are guaranteed the right to due process, have trouble proving their citizenship to the authorities, it's likely even more difficult for legal residents as well as other vulnerable populations, such as the mentally disabled, who may lack a clear understanding of the circumstances.
Mark Lyttle, a North Carolina native with a mental disability, spent four months wandering around Central America after being deported in 2008 because he told jail officials that he was born in Mexico City, Mexico. According to the Associated Press, Lyttle was "coerced and manipulated" by immigration agents into signing false statements that allowed his deportation.
According to his lawyers, Lyttle, who spoke no Spanish, was flown to Texas and "forced to disembark and sent off on foot into Mexico, still wearing the prison-issued jumpsuit.” Over the next 115 days, Lyttle drifted around Central America with no identification or proof of citizenship, which got him arrested and jailed in Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, his family was frantically searching for him with no help from the authorities whatsoever. The ACLU has since filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf.
Sadly, this shameful episode isn’t the first of its kind. Lyttle’s abuse at the hands of immigration enforcement sounds eerily similar to the deportation of another mentally disabled American citizen, Pedro Guzman. Holland explains how the "mentally disabled U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was deported to Mexico last year, sparking a frantic search by relatives until he was finally found, three months later, alone and desperately trying to get back to the United States."
More recently, an immigration detainer mistakenly snared Romy Campos, a 19-year-old American college student. Following a November 12 arrest for a minor misdemeanor, Campos was held in a California jail for four days and denied bail.
She was assigned a public defender in state court, but the attorney told her that nothing could be done to lift the federal detainer. Campos wasn't released until four days later when ACLU attorney Jennie Pasquarella provided ICE with Campos' Florida birth certificate. Campos is a dual citizen of the US and Spain and has both a US and Spanish passport, which she has used interchangeably. Because she once entered the US with her Spanish passport, she is recorded in the DHS database.
“I felt misused completely, I felt nonimportant, I just felt violated by my own country,” Campos told the Times. While her detention was inexcusable, Campos is one of the luckier ones who got out quickly. Others have been detained for weeks and even months before proving their citizenship.
In 2008, 53-year-old Anthony A. Clarke was illegally detained for 43 days by immigration authorities who tried to have him deported. Clarke, who was arrested by federal agents during a midnight raid on his sister's home, was born in Jamaica. He came to the US as a teenager and became a citizen in 1975 when his mother was naturalized. According to the Star Tribune, FBI records indicated that immigration officials knew of Clarke's legal status at the time of his arrest, yet they detained him anyway. Clarke has since filed a lawsuit in federal court for “false arrest and malicious prosecution.”
John Morton, the director of ICE, insists that his agency gives “immediate and close attention” to detainees claiming they are American citizens. “We don’t have the power to detain citizens,” says Morton, adding, “We obviously take any allegation that someone is a citizen very seriously.”
Regardless of how committed ICE might be to correcting its mistakes, these stories, at the very least, should raise questions about our increasingly disturbing immigration enforcement system that so easily dismisses the rights of those unfortunate enough to get mangled in it.