pack your bags

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"I still can't believe this is happening in America."

So said the sister of a U.S. citizen locked up by the government for weeks and nearly deported because he couldn't produce a U.S. birth certificate and the government couldn't be bothered to check its own records. 

Thomas Warziniack was born in Minnesota and grew up in Georgia, but immigration authorities pronounced him an illegal immigrant from Russia.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has held Warziniack for weeks in an Arizona detention facility with the aim of deporting him to a country he's never seen. His jailers shrugged off Warziniack's claims that he was an American citizen, even though they could have retrieved his Minnesota birth certificate in minutes and even though a Colorado court had concluded that he was a U.S. citizen a year before it shipped him to Arizona.

On Thursday, Warziniack was told he would be released. Immigration authorities were finally able to verify his citizenship.

"The immigration agents told me they never make mistakes," Warziniack said in a phone interview from jail. "All I know is that somebody dropped the ball."

The story of how immigration officials decided that a small-town drifter with a Southern accent was an illegal Russian immigrant illustrates how the federal government mistakenly detains and sometimes deports American citizens.

U.S. citizens who are mistakenly jailed by immigration authorities can get caught up in a nightmarish bureaucratic tangle in which they're simply not believed.

An unpublished study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit organization, in 2006 identified 125 people in immigration detention centers across the nation who immigration lawyers believed had valid U.S. citizenship claims.

Vera initially focused on six facilities where most of the cases surfaced. The organization later broadened its analysis to 12 sites and plans to track the outcome of all cases involving citizens.

Nina Siulc, the lead researcher, said she thinks that many more American citizens probably are being erroneously detained or deported every year because her assessment looked at only a small number of those in custody. Each year, about 280,000 people are held on immigration violations at 15 federal detention centers and more than 400 state and local contract facilities nationwide.

Unlike suspects charged in criminal courts, detainees accused of immigration violations don't have a right to an attorney, and three-quarters of them represent themselves. Less affluent or resourceful U.S. citizens who are detained must try to maneuver on their own through a complicated system.

. . .

While immigration advocates agree that the agents generally release detainees before deportation in clear-cut cases, they said that ICE sometimes ignores valid assertions of citizenship in the rush to ship out more illegal immigrants.

Proving citizenship is especially difficult for the poor, mentally ill, disabled or anyone who has trouble getting a copy of his or her birth certificate while behind bars.

Pedro Guzman, a mentally disabled U.S. citizen who was born in Los Angeles, was serving a 120-day sentence for trespassing last year when he was shipped off to Mexico. Guzman was found three months later trying to return home. Although federal government attorneys have acknowledged that Guzman was a citizen, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Thursday that her agency still questions the validity of his birth certificate.

. . .

"It becomes your word against the government's, even when you know and insist that you're a U.S. citizen," Siulc said. "Your word doesn't always count, and the government doesn't always investigate fully."

That is a tactful way to put it.  A more accurate statement would be: "Your word usually doesn't count, and the government usually doesn't investigate at all." 

ICE has quotas to meet, people to deport--doesn't really matter who it is, as long as the numbers are up.  For an ICE agent who manages to lock someone up, that's a notch on his belt, another tally mark closer to a bonus, evidence that he's doing his job well.  He doesn't have to sort out the mess of a wrongful imprisonment--that's up to the judge and attorneys to deal with or, if it doesn't get dealt with and the person is deported, well, that's their problem, not his.  Their directives are clear, transmitted from NumbersUSA to Tancredo's posse to George Bush's ear to the recess appointment nepotism hire du jour: Deport first, ask questions later. 

ICE's Fobbs said agents move as quickly as possible to check stories of people who claim they're American citizens. But she said that many of the cases involve complex legal arguments, such as whether U.S. citizenship is derived from parents, which an immigration judge has to sort out.

"We have to be careful we don't release the wrong person," she said.

It should be clear that the government's efforts are geared towards preventing release rather than preventing wrongful detention.  The system is set up to capture, detain, and deport as many people as possible.  The things that make this process go smoothly--warrantless searches, midnight home raids, unbalanced evidentiary burdens, jaded and overworked judges, limited right of appeal, widespread absence of counsel, and above all, a tangible attitude of contempt for the targeted population--are not conducive to uncovering or correcting mistakes. 

Due process rights are supposed to act as a systematic guard against error in judicial proceedings, so that innocent people don't get punished for things they didn't do.  Implementation of due process in our criminal justice system is problematic, but at least it's there.  That's the Constitution.  That's the Bill of Rights.  That's what most Americans are justifiably proud of.   

You might be surprised, as someone who the government has labeled an alien, how quickly your due process rights evaporate.  If our dysfunctional immigration system deports U.S. citizens this frequently (and the scale of the problem is hard to gauge, since the great majority of errors likely go undetected and uncorrected), imagine how fraught with error a typical immigration case must be in a system that has grown fat and comfortable in a due process-less environment.  It's every prosecutor's dream--most of the things that make a criminal case so tedious and time-consuming are just not there.  Let's run down the list:  

No right to jury trial.  No right to a speedy trial.  No right to court-appointed counsel.  No right to counsel at all if ICE wants to "question" (i.e., interrogate) you outside the presence of your attorney while preparing the charging documents--it's an "administrative" procedure that doesn't trigger the right to counsel, as they'll happily tell you, no need for those messy legal guarantees since there's nothing of importance at stake (just your whole life).  No double jeopardy protection.  Seriously compromised protection against self-incrimination.  Limited protection from unreasonable search and seizure.  Secret evidence to be used against you if the government says you are a threat to security--no chance for you to rebut it if you don't even know it exists.  Witnesses to be produced in your favor if the government feels like it.  Charges to be shifted or dropped at the government's convenience.  No Article III judges--immigration judges are part of the Executive, not the Judicial Branch.

Basically they get to do whatever they want, and you get to produce what you hope is a winning smile to try to appeal to your captor's sense of humanity, this person who's got your entire life and future in his hands, and if you can just get him to look you in the eyes, maybe he'll finally believe you ...

No--bang, door closed, not this time, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, better hope your cousin has $15,000 to spare for bond or you're off to Pennsylvania, then Texas, then on a plane back to wherever the government has decided "home" is, hope you had a chance to kiss your kids goodbye, you may not see them again. 

But this should provide you some measure of comfort as you ponder what went wrong on your long plane ride to some strange land:

"We don't want to detain or deport U.S. citizens," said Ernestine Fobbs, an ICE spokeswoman. "It's just not something we do."

Ok, then.  If that is good enough for George Bush and Julie Myers, I guess it'll have to be good enough for the rest of us, too. 

Via Atrios

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Changeseeker said:

My next post is going to relate to this one, yave. This is so sad. And so scary.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on January 25, 2008 12:26 AM.

Breaking Free was the previous entry in this blog.

Borders, Schmorders is the next entry in this blog.

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