U.S. citizen imprisoned for 7 months by ICE, nearly deported
Still, the posture of the article and the reason this is a news item is not that a human being was treated so poorly. It's that this happened to a U.S. citizen. The problems that this article uncovers--the failure of the system to obtain accurate results, the inability of many migrants to navigate a complex process--exist for non-citizens as well. These problems didn't arise by accident. They have been built into the system to allow the government to imprison and deport more migrants for political gain.
And the idea that the issuance of two "A numbers" for a single individual is a bizarre glitch is just not true. It happens All. The. Time.
SCOTT FONTAINE; Published: August 19th, 2008 01:00 AM | Updated: August 19th, 2008 10:33 AM
Rennison Castillo broke the law. He was punished for it. And he thought he had served his time. Instead, the last day of an eight-month jail sentence was the start of a seven-month nightmare that almost ended two years ago with Castillo - a Lakewood resident, Army veteran and American citizen - deported to Belize, a country he left as a child.
He spoke publicly about the incident for the first time earlier this month.
Immigration officials say his case was a rare mistake and that it has prompted closer scrutiny of citizenship claims. But advocates say it's the kind of mix-up that's bound to happen as the federal government aggressively moves to deport more criminal immigrants while limiting their access to the legal system.
It's not rare. I've seen it happen several times.
It began in November 2005, as Castillo finished his sentence at Pierce County Jail. He was filling out paperwork and turning in his uniform when a jail employee told him federal officials had put an immigration hold on him.
"I didn't think at the time that it would be any big deal," said Castillo, 30. "After all, I'm a citizen, right?"
He is indeed, since 1998. But when Castillo finished the out-processing procedure a few minutes later, officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bound his hands and legs, loaded him into a van and took him to the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma's Tideflats.
Castillo concedes he's not always been a model citizen - he pleaded guilty to felony harassment and breaking a no-contact order - but he is a citizen.
It took seven months for immigration officials to believe him.
"I admit I got arrested. I put myself in the spotlight, so to speak," he said. "But for them to keep me there for seven months to find out I was telling the truth? Come on. That's a little much."
The problem stemmed from what Castillo's lawyer called "a bizarre glitch." The federal government issues an Alien Registration Number, or A-number, to each immigrant, much like a Social Security number. Sometime between childhood and when he was arrested, Castillo was erroneously issued a second A-number.
ICE officers processed Castillo's newest A-number when he was detained. It showed no proof of a green card or naturalization. It took several months before anyone - federal officials, Castillo or his lawyers - discovered the other A-number."There's no explanation other than it being a mistake," said Andrea Crumpler, Castillo's lawyer during this time. "I've seen it happen, but it's so rare."
"It is very, very, very rare that this happens," Dankers said. "And when information came to our attention that he was a naturalized U.S. citizen, we released him."Both ICE and Castillo's lawyer are falling over themselves to emphasize how infrequently the government makes mistakes in immigration cases. But we know from ample reporting and experience that government errors in immigration cases are extraordinarily common, and that the system is structured in a way that perpetuates and exacerbates those errors rather than locating and resolving them.
Castillo arrived illegally in the United States when he was 7 and later received a green card; he doesn't speak with an accent.Everyone speaks with an accent of some kind, even if it's "American." The nature of the accent doesn't matter to ICE when they are locking someone up. Should it?
He joined the Army in 1996 and served at Fort Lewis and in South Korea until his honorable discharge in July 2003.Should this matter? What if he had been a permanent resident serving in the Army? A firefighter? A schoolteacher? Does a soldier deserve less to be wrongfully imprisoned than anyone else?
Hubris and contempt are unfortunately present at every level of this system, from the arresting ICE officers to the trial attorneys to the immigration judges to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Not all government actors behave in this way, but too many do and there are not nearly enough checks on bad behavior to prevent egregious foul-ups like this one.
When he first entered federal custody, he tried to explain his situation to an ICE agent. He was a citizen, he told her, and he served his country.
"She just smiled at me like I was lying," he said. "She told me that people say anything to get out of here."
Another "bizarre glitch?" Or an all-too-common pattern of error and carelessness on the part of government officials?
"Sir, you get documentation when you become a United States citizen," [Immigration Judge] Josephson replied. "Where is your documentation? You simply say I'm a citizen. You get a piece of paper."But the paper - the naturalization certificate - never arrived at Castillo's home after the ceremony, he said. He later discovered it was sent it to the wrong address.
The case resumed Jan. 24, 2006, after federal officials had a chance to investigate Castillo's citizenship claims.
Josephson again was skeptical.
"I don't think you're a United States citizen, simply because you think that some paper was filed on your behalf," he told Castillo.
The government's attorney, Thomas Malloy, also asked Castillo if he had his Army discharge papers, which would prove military service. Castillo said the forms were in the trunk of his car, which was parked at his friend's house. Malloy asked Castillo if he could arrange someone to deliver the document. Castillo said he could. Malloy then moved on to a different subject.
Several minutes later, the hearing ended. Josephson ordered Castillo deported to Belize.
Malloy failed in his duty as an officer of the court to uphold the law. The government clearly failed
to carefully check out Castillo's claims of citizenship. By assuming
Castillo's bad faith and zealously trying to deport him, Malloy was
involved in a serious miscarriage of justice.
Josephson failed to impartially consider both sides of the case and
follow up on Castillo's claim that he had evidence of citizenship
available if permitted to pursue it.
We can surmise that this is not the only case in which Malloy or
Josephson were involved in covering up or ignoring government error.
This is simply the only case we know about.
Why did this happen?
Jorge Baron, the executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said more mistakes happen as the Department of Homeland Security has made an effort to increase the number of deportations in recent years. ICE officials said in July that the number of immigrants deported from Washington, Oregon and Alaska increased by nearly 40 percent during the first nine months of the fiscal year. Deportations through the Criminal Alien Program jumped 26 percent in that time.
"The more the detention system and the more the whole process of enforcement happen, the more we get these situations," he said, adding that he feels the system is tilted heavily toward deportation. "This case highlights the issues, but it's not just about this one case. It's about the problems that exist when you put people in detention and they don't always have access to legal assistance."
The idea that the government watches out for the best interests of
its citizens applies to some: those who can afford counsel, those who
don't "look like an immigrant," and those with the education and
wherewithal to navigate a daunting system.
The question we can ask ourselves after reading Castillo's story is this: Do you trust your government?