Immigration officers in the United States operate under a cardinal rule: Keep your hands off Americans.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents repeatedly target U.S. citizens for deportation by mistake, making wrongful arrests based on incomplete government records, bad data and lax investigations, according to a Times review of federal lawsuits, internal ICE documents and interviews.
Since 2012, ICE has released from its custody more than 1,480 people after investigating their citizenship claims, according to agency figures. And a Times review of Department of Justice records and interviews with immigration attorneys uncovered hundreds of additional cases in the country’s immigration courts in which people were forced to prove they are Americans and sometimes spent months or even years in detention.
Victims include a landscaper snatched in a Home Depot parking lot in Rialto and held for days despite his son’s attempts to show agents the man’s U.S. passport; a New York resident locked up for more than three years fighting deportation efforts after a federal agent mistook his father for someone who wasn’t a U.S. citizen; and a Rhode Island housekeeper mistakenly targeted twice, resulting in her spending a night in prison the second time even though her husband had brought her U.S. passport to a court hearing.
But hey, what real harm does this cause?
Sergio Carrillo had already been handcuffed in the Home Depot parking lot in Rialto on a July morning in 2016 when an officer in Homeland Security uniform appeared.
“Homeland Security?” Carrillo asked. “What do you want with me?”
Ignoring Carrillo’s demands for an explanation, the officer ordered the 39-year-old landscaper taken to a federal detention facility in downtown Los Angeles.
“You’re making a big mistake,” Carrillo recalled saying from the back seat to the officers driving him. “I am a U.S. citizen.”
Born in Mexico, Carrillo has lived nearly his entire life in the United States and automatically gained citizenship as a teen in 1994 when his mother became a citizen. He received a certificate of citizenship from the U.S. government and a passport to document his status.
Federal policies require ICE agents to “carefully and expeditiously” investigate any claim of U.S. citizenship. But throughout his detention, Carrillo said, ICE officers either ignored or scoffed at his repeated claims. When his son rushed to the downtown booking facility with his father’s passport and citizenship certificate, ICE officers refused to consider the documents, he said.
After he was moved to a privately run immigration detention center 85 miles outside Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert, Carrillo’s hope that ICE would quickly remedy its mistake gave way to a sense of despair.
“Inmates were telling me, ‘You’re not going to see a judge for weeks. In here, you don’t have any rights,’” he said. “I started getting real scared: How long was I going to be in here? How could this be happening?”
It was not until Carrillo’s fourth day in detention, when an attorney intervened and presented agents with Carrillo’s passport, that ICE corrected its error. Carrillo emerged from custody to find his phone filled with messages from angry clients. Several fired him.
“For ICE, it’s like, ‘Oops, we made a mistake,’” Carrillo said. “But for me on the other end, it tears up your life.”