Friday, June 10, 2011

Activists: U.S. citizens detained by immigration agents (Miami Herald)

Activists: U.S. citizens detained by immigration agents
Federal immigration agents stepping up detention and deportation of U. S. citizens after racial profiling, a claim that agents deny.

Posted on Friday, 06.10.11

For about 15 minutes one day last year, a 17-year-old teen named Walter was handcuffed and detained by a U.S. immigration officer who assumed he was not a U. S. citizen.

His detention outside his home near Florida City illustrates what appears to be a new trend: detention, and in some cases, deportation of U.S. citizens ensnared in expanding immigration enforcement operations.

Immigration agents grabbed Walter, who was born in South Florida, while in the process of arresting his father, an undocumented Salvadoran, on April 28, 2010.

While arrests of U.S. citizens by federal immigration officers have been widely documented before, the majority of those cases have occurred elsewhere in the country. Recent South Florida incidents had not been widely publicized because those affected were either unwilling to discuss their cases or could not be located.

Recently, attorneys for Walter and his family outlined the incident in which he was handcuffed by an immigration officer in a housing complex near Florida City. Also, two young women -- both U.S. citizens -- witnessed the incident.

The same officer who handcuffed Walter - whose attorney does not want his full name used - also approached and questioned them about their immigration status, the witnesses said. The agent did not seem to believe them when they said they were U. S. citizens.

“He demanded ID, even after we said we were citizens,” said Dalila Carballo, born in Puerto Rico.

Carballo, a manager in the complex near where the incident occurred, witnessed the event with co-worker Yessenia O’Connor, a naturalized citizen originally born in Nicaragua.

Attorneys also detailed the case of a fourth U.S. citizen who had been held at the Krome immigrant detention center in west Miami-Dade for several days because immigration officers did not believe his claim to citizenship.

They finally were convinced after his mother faxed his birth certificate showing he had been born in the United States and a prominent immigration attorney pressed for his release, the attorneys said.

Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said they could not comment on specific cases because of privacy rules.

But they noted that, in general, ICE seeks to verify whether a person’s claim to citizenship is valid. Officials said in many cases foreign nationals tend to claim citizenship falsely. ICE officials also acknowledged that sometimes it’s difficult to verify citizenship because there is no national birth record database.

“ICE only processes an individual for removal when all available evidence indicates… that the individual is an alien,” ICE said in a statement. “Instances involving individuals erroneously claiming to be aliens are rare. It is far more common for ICE to encounter people who attempt to avoid removal by falsely stating they are United States citizens.”

The Border Patrol would not comment on specific cases, but in written answers to questions, the agency said the law gives its officers authority to question or detain people regardless of whether they claim citizenship.

“Border Patrol agents [have] broad law enforcement authorities, including the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence,” the Border Patrol response said. “Just because a person says he/she is a U.S. citizen doesn’t mean that it is true.’’

Foreign nationals are required to carry immigration papers at all times and federal immigration officers have the authority to demand those papers at any time. But U.S. citizens are not required to carry papers proving citizenship.

Immigrant rights activists and attorneys, who discovered these cases while interviewing immigrant families and detained immigrants, said more and more U.S. citizens are getting caught up in immigration sweeps because federal agents have stepped up the pace of enforcement.

Officers approach citizens who are generally Hispanic thinking they may be foreign nationals, activists and immigration attorneys said.

“The agents may be under pressure to increase their numbers, and as a result, U.S. citizens who are Hispanic get caught up in the sweeps because of profiling,” said Tania Galloni, an attorney with Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) who handled Walter’s case.

“Despite its stated goal of targeting ‘dangerous criminals,’ ICE deported nearly 200,000 people last year who had no criminal records,” said FIAC executive director Cheryl Little. “We are very concerned that ICE and Border Patrol agents are aggressively harassing people who ‘look Hispanic,’ including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.”

The Border Patrol, a part of Customs and Border Protection, denied the allegations, saying the agency follows federal policies against racial profiling..

Since the Bush administration, Homeland Security officials have sought to increase the number of deportations – a trend that became more pronounced after President Obama took office. Last year, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a record number of deportations: 392,000.

FIAC also handled the case of the Hispanic citizen held at Krome and helped win his release from the facility in June 2008.
Since at least 2008, complaints about immigration officers detaining and deporting U.S. citizens have spread across the United States. Those earlier cases occurred elsewhere in the country.

While on another case at Krome, FIAC attorneys encountered a Hispanic man in June 2008 who said he was a U.S. citizen detained by immigration officers.

According to Little, the FIAC executive director, the man said he had been born in the United States. When FIAC brought the case to the attention of a Krome immigration officer, he said the detainee could wait until his next scheduled appearance before an immigration judge weeks later.

Even after the man’s mother faxed his birth certificate, officials were still reluctant to release him until Little pressed them, she said.

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