Acting on flawed information from Dept. of Homeland Security databases, local police have been instructed by federal immigration officers to hold citizens for investigation and possible deportation. Immigration agents do not have the authority to detain citizens, but those arrested by local police say they were held for days with no communication with federal agents to rectify the situation.
“I told every officer I was in front of that I’m an American citizen, and they didn’t believe me,” said Antonio Montejano, who was arrested on a shoplifting charge last month and held on an immigration order for two nights in a police station in Santa Monica, Calif., and two more nights in a Los Angeles county jail cell, on suspicion that he was an illegal immigrant. Mr. Montejano was born in Los Angeles.
Under the Obama Administration more than 1.1 million people have been deported, the highest numbers in six decades. Under the immigration agencies Secure Communities program, fingerprints of every person booked at local jails are checked against a Homeland Security immigration database. If the check results in a match, federal immigration agents can issue detainers, asking local law enforcement authorities to hold a suspect for up to 48 hours.
John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency gave “immediate and close attention” to anyone who claimed to be a citizen.
“We don’t have the power to detain citizens,” Mr. Morton said in an interview on Tuesday. “We obviously take any allegation that someone is a citizen very seriously.”
The exact numbers of Americans held by immigration authorities are hard to determine because they are not typically recorded. In one study, 82 people who were held for deportation from 2006 to 2008 at two immigration detention centers in Arizona, for periods as long as a year, were freed after immigration judges determined that they were American citizens.
“Because of the scale of enforcement, the numbers of people who are interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement are just enormous right now,” said Jacqueline Stevens, the study’s author and political science professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Ms. Stevens has concluded that “a low but persistent” percentage of the nearly 400,000 people held for deportation each year are citizens.
An American college student, Romy Campos, was held in a California jail last month for four days on an immigration detainer. After her Nov. 12 arrest in Torrance on a minor misdemeanor charge, Ms. Campos, 19, was denied bail and transferred to a Los Angeles County jail. A public defender assigned to her in state court said he was unable to lift the federal detainer.
“Can’t they see in my file or something that I’m a citizen?” Ms. Campos said she asked him. “He said: ‘I’m sorry, but this is state court. I can’t do anything about it.’ ”
After four days, Ms. Campos was released after Jennie Pasquarella, an A.C.L.U. lawyer, provided her Florida birth certificate to the immigration agency.
“I felt misused completely, I felt nonimportant, I just felt violated by my own country,” Ms. Campos said. A citizen of both the United States and Spain, she later learned that she had a Department of Homeland Security record because she had once entered the United States on her Spanish passport.
United States citizens can be tagged in a Secure Communities fingerprint check because of flukes in the department’s databases. Unlike the federal criminal databases administered by the F.B.I., Homeland Security records include all immigration transactions, not just violations. An immigrant who has always maintained legal status, including those naturalized to become American citizens, can still trigger a fingerprint match.
According to Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer in Alaska, under the nation’s complex citizenship laws, many foreign-born people become Americans automatically, through American parents or adoption. Often their citizenship is not recorded in Homeland Security databases, Ms. Stock said.
Other cases of possibly illegal detentions of citizens have been recently reported in Allentown, Pa., Indianapolis and Chicago.
I.C.E. agents generally cancel detainers immediately when they determine that the suspect is a citizen. In no recent cases was an American placed in deportation.
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