Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Interview with David, Wrongly Classified as an Illegal Alien Based On Racial Profiling


This is a story about how one man, David Lopez (names are fictional unless otherwise indicated), a US citizen, came to endure the racism, lawlessness, and stupidity of US immigration agents, leading to his incarceration by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and a removal order to Mexico, even though ICE has no jurisdiction over US citizens.

As opposed to previous accounts on this blog (you can find by clicking on the David tag), this one is based largely on an interview I had with David on Thursday, December 18, 2008, the day after receiving a message from David's attorney, Neil Rambana, that he had just received David's Certificate of US Citizenship.

This post focuses on one case of a US citizen illegally detained by ICE to show how the mandatory criminal deportation policy and its implementation are fraught with civil rights and other Constitutional violations. Elsewhere on this blog and in The Nation I have shown that one consequence of this law, the deportation and detention of US citizens, is widespread.

The post here also indicates the points at which David's narrative invites legal remedies that might include a Bivens complaint, a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and criminal prosecution for kidnapping and false imprisonment.

David's Story: US Issues Illegal Removal Orders for US Citizens of Hispanic Descent

In 1998 David ignored the advice of his sister Esther and took the rap for a nonviolent crime to protect another sister, Anna. Anna, in her mid-40s, was 20 years older than David and in poor health. David thought he'd be sentenced to 3 years in prison, max. But instead he found himself with a ten year sentence, hoping for an early parole. Fortunately, he'd be in the Coffee Prison, a low security private facility for inmates with nonviolent records.

Or so David thought. In the middle of the night in 1999 the guards woke him up and told him he was being transferred. David said, "I thought I was going to another minimum security prison, but they sent me to close security. I was afraid because it was more dangerous. In close security you have the murderers, rapists, people with life sentences. There are a lot of people with nothing to lose." (David is living in El Paso, Texas with his elderly mother. We spoke by phone.)

The guards who transferred him to Hancock Prison didn't tell him why he was going there. He learned from a prison counselor the next day that it was because of an immigration hold that Carlos Cabrillo had put on David while he was in the Jackson Diagnostic intake center in 1998.

I asked David how he was picked out to have an interview with Cabrillo and he described how the immigration agents in the prison used illegal racial profiling: "They take all the Hispanics. That's the way they do it, if your name is Hispanic. It doesn't matter if you're Puerto Rican, whatever." This is exactly the same screening procedure that Robert said occurred in the L.A. County Jail in 2001. (Robert is a US citizen who was deported twice to Mexico and served 3 years for falsely impersonating a US citizen. You can read about him in the NationFacts tagged posts.)

In 1998 David told Cabrillo that he was a US citizen and had been documented as such by the US Consulate in Juarez in 1989 when he was 16. David's father was a US citizen and fulfilled the other requirements necessary to convey citizenship to his children born in Mexico. "They said that I was a new citizen," David told me, and gave him a consular identity card indicating his US citizenship. "They didn't say nothing about registering." That's because the US does not keep such a list and there would be no reason to expect that David or anyone else in prison would have with them evidence of US citizenship.

Unlike the other Hispanic-named inmates at the Jackson Diagnostic Center that day, David was not fingerprinted or photographed. He thought Cabrillo believed him. "He led me along," David said.

The next time he saw Cabrillo, David was in the Hancock Prison, the close security facility, shortly after he was transferred. Cabrillo was telling David that he needed to prove his US citizenship, otherwise the US government would continue to classify him as an alien. "I told him, 'I'm in prison. Whatever I told you is all I can give you. I gave you my social security number. My ex-wife is a permanent resident because of me. All you have to do is go to the immigration building!'" David was appalled by Cabrillo's refusal to consult his own immigration bureaucracy for the relevant paperwork in such an important matter that should have been easy to resolve. "I really don't think he did a thing to find out."

Cabrillo's only duty as an immigration agent in the Georgia prison system was to ascertain the inmates' citizenship. This is not a discretionary activity for a prison-based immigration agent, but the only purpose of his employment. By failing to consult the relevant authorities whom David had clearly specified, Cabrillo did not carry out the congressionally designated duties for the program that had funded him.

This is the first of several violations of David's civil rights that seem to trigger government liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) 28 U.S.C. sect. 1346b, as well as a law that provides damages if government employees violate Constitutional rights (42 U.S.C. sect. 1983).

Under FTCA, the common law "sovereign immunity" defense is not available to the federal government for tort liability in the case of:
injury or loss or property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." 28 U.S.C. sect. 1346(b).

There are several exceptions to the FTCA but none of these obtain in this case. The most frequently used exception is for duties in which the employee is exercising a "discretionary function" for actions that may but need not be construed as government obligations under law. But this could not be a defense in this matter.

Relatedly, US law requiring the burden of proof for foreign-born citizens in deportation proceedings does not change Congress's intent to support a prison-based program for initiating these proceedings against criminal aliens, not US citizens.

In other words, the only reason that David encountered an immigration agent was because Congress had decided to deport criminal aliens from US prisons. The absence of any process for David to challenge a misclassification from prison -- because there was no process to do so until after his sentence had been served and because he had no legal representation -- only increases the expectation that the immigration agents exercise due diligence in their assessments. At the very least this would seem to require consulting records in their own databases.

Furthermore, the malfeasance leading to David's illegal detention is not protected by the intentional tort exemption. The exemption does not cover "investigative or law enforcement officers," defined as those who are empowered to "make arrests under federal law." This encompasses one of the duties of immigration agents and the one that led to the detainer. And again, the initial violation of the immigration agent was the malfeasance in duties leading to the initial misclassification, which is not an exempted intentional damage.

In addition, Cabrillo's decision to screen based on Hispanic names is a violation of David's civil rights, subjecting him to deportation procedures only because of racial profiling. This seems to trigger what's known as a Bivens action, in which federal employees may be sued for violating someone's constitutional or other legal rights. In this case, the misclassification of David as an alien violated his due process and equal protection rights. Moreover, these violations occurred in the context of an agreement with Georgia authorizing immigration agents to work under color of state as well as federal law, in this case, the ability to screen inside state prisons under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.

This state agreement authorizing the federal agent work in the Georgia prison would seem to directly trigger the provisions of 42 U.S.C. 21 sect. 1983.

The usual Bivens exceptions do not apply. There is no other available remedy for the violations of David's Constitutional rights and Congress specifically excluded a judicial remedy (by not allowing for a judicial appeal of a deportation order prior to time served). Moreover, it is clearly in the interest of good public policy for immigration agents to have an incentive to not deport or hold in detention US citizens.

In short, Cabrillo's initial malfeasance in screening David seems to fall squarely under the umbrella FTCA violations -- for negligence in performing a basic bureaucratic duty that would trigger a tort if committed by a bureaucrat in a private firm, say an insurance agent who failed to search for records in the company database of previous patient care authorization, resulting in adverse consequences for the patient.

But this is just the beginning.

After his interview with Cabrillo at Hancock Prison, David was sent to an even worse prison, Telfair. David said that at the time it was a "punishment camp" and the conditions were especially harsh. David didn't know why he was sent there. Most likely it was because of the 1994 Crime Bill, touted as a major bipartisan achievement for Rahm Emmanuel and the Clinton White House. That bill first funded the ongoing State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. As a condition for federal reimbursements for alien inmates, states had to promise to house all alien inmates in maximum security prisons.

David's name still appears in the Georgia State SCAAP registery submitted for federal reimbursements. David is listed in the November, 2008 registry as someone who has claimed Mexican citizenship, months after his deportation proceedings were dropped by the DHS.

In the event, after David was misclassified and moved to Telfair, he enlisted his sister Esther and his mother to gather the federal government's documents that it had issued to David and his ex-wife, and send them to David so that he could send them back to the same agency. In 2002 he sent the Atlanta immigration office the same documents that in late 2008 were used for the purpose of his recently issued certificate of citizenship.

Back in 2002, David waited. Nothing. He waited some more. Still nothing. He waited a few years, and then finally in December, 2005, he received a letter from the Georgia Department of Corrections informing him that as a result of a lawsuit it had lost, it was no longer able to enforce a policy of making inmates serve 90% of their sentences. He was going to be released. That was the good news.

The bad news: David was going to be deported to Mexico. In February 2006 he was moved to the top floor of an Alabama jail Etowah County had leased to ICE. He met an ICE agent who asked David, "Do you want to be deported or see the judge?" David said, "He told me 'You're not a U.S. citizen.' Then he opened the file, what I sent in 2002, and said, 'Wow, you're really an American citizen. What are you doing here?' He really got surprised." David told the agent that the reason this happened was "'You never looked at the papers. You never pay attention to what I sent you.'" The agent told David that he'd have to go see the judge.

So this triggers the second series of unlawful abuses of David's rights. ICE has no jurisdiction over US citizens. The minute the agent David met in Alabama recognized David as a US citizen, his removal order should have been thrown away and David should have been given a sincere apology. The agent's failure to perform his job is actionable under the FTCA and the violation of David's due process rights justifies a Bivens complaint.

If this weren't a system designed for poor people of color who lack legal representation, then the story might end soon. After all, David was supposed to see an immigration judge in a couple of weeks. But, alas for David, it took three more years before he would be released. "At first I didn't have a problem to wait [two weeks]. I knew I was going to be released." But the day for David's hearing, "They never went to pick me up. They told me the guys who were going to pick me up didn't know where I was. They thought I was in another place." David didn't believe them. How could they not know where he was? "I told them, 'if you think you can make believe that, you're wrong.'"

At that point he was told he would have to wait for another court date in two months. David said, "I waited too long for that moment. Two more months ain't that long." But when it came time for his second scheduled hearing in May David was again left to stew in his cell. "I went to talk to [the ICE agents] again and they told me the same thing. That's when I started getting desperate." How desperate? David said of what transpired after he missed the second hearing, "I felt like I was kidnapped."

This is not surprising. David was kidnapped. Under Georgia law, moving someone against his will constitutes kidnapping. Likewise, arresting, confining, or detaining someone without legal authority constitutes false imprisonment. The immigration service was knowingly moving David across state lines and holding him without legal authority. Kidnapping is a violent felony in Georgia and punishable by 10 to 20 years.

When a US citizen is intentionally denied his personal liberty, those responsible should be prosecuted not only for civil damages, but on behalf of the people. The intuition that David's treatment was inhumane and deserves punishment is backed up by a statute designed for this purpose. It only needs a state prosecutor with a sense of justice to be implemented. Civil penalties shouldered by taxpayers are not a sufficient incentive to stop such behaviors. Only after immigration agents understand that the state bureaucracy is not a protection for their illicit activities but the means for their prosecution can damages such as those endured by David be rectified and deterred.

After David realized he was kidnapped, he contacted the pro bono attorney assigned him. "Mr. Rambana told me, "Just send me the papers and I'll go and take you out of there.'" David sent his papers to Mr. Rambana, twice. And twice Mr. Rambana did not receive them, nor were they returned to David. David suspected the guards were intercepting his correspondence.

In August, 2006, the THIRD TIME that the guards failed to bring David to his immigration hearing, he was nonetheless informed that Judge Cassidy had terminated his deportation order. However, the ICE agent in the jail tried to convince David that "the judge terminated my case because they didn't take me to court, not because he was accepting an American citizen." David knew better and repeated that he felt kidnapped and "depressed, desperate." He explained, "I found people who were [in the ICE-leased floor of the jail] for five years. They were fighting their cases. I thought I was going to be with them and spending a long time there."

David wrote to the judge and asked for the decision, which he sent to Mr. Rambana. Within a few days, and this appears to be in September or October, 2006, "I was released. But they didn't release me."

David describes being on the Alabama Etowah County Jail ground floor in his street clothes when he was informed that the Georgia Department of Corrections had just placed a hold on him. He was sent back upstairs, this time to the floor for state prisoners, not alien detainees. He stayed there for three days.

The next unlawful action occurred when ICE agents, who at that point lacked even the thinnest shred of a legal fiction for their custody of him, put him in an ICE van and drove him to Atlanta's downtown jail. David said ICE drove him there because the jail wouldn't pick him up because "they didn't have a charge." And the Atlanta jail wouldn't take David even when ICE dropped him off. "At 6 am they left me in the intake waiting room. At 6 pm ICE picked me up and put me in another jail. Fulton. I don't know why ICE did this. They were so strange. Everything was so strange."

A new piece of the story emerged in the van ride to Fulton, when the ICE agent told David that Cabrillo had personally told that ICE agent that the reason David had been classified as an alien was that David had himself told Cabrillo that he was "illegal." David replied, "If I told him that, why didn't he take my picture or fingerprints?" The agent in the van said he didn't know. Perhaps Cabrillo was lying to his colleagues to cover up his error.

At Fulton County jail the situation in Atlanta recurred: "They didn't want to let me in and they told them the same thing, 'You're going to get us in trouble. What's the charge? How come he's got a hold from the Department of Corrections but he's already released?'" The ICE agents said they didn't know and told them he was going to pick David up the next morning. They next morning, however, they booked David "like I broke parole. That's what they put in the computer, and I saw it." But of course David had never even been on parole. However, while he was being held by the Georgia Correctional Authority, ICE had decided to appeal Judge Cassidy's order terminating David's removal order. [The lack of due process, including the DHS failure to notify David's attorney of this decision, is detailed in previous postings here.]

Georgia was starting to put together an argument that it was holding David so it could arrange for his parole, but this was a fabrication, possibly designed as a cover to hold David for ICE as it was appealing the termination order. Since Georgia had already paroled him under Georgia law and released him from detention under federal immigration law, the claim was a ruse, one that a correctional officer himself noted to David after David was moved from Fulton to the Baldwin Diagnostic Prison in late 2006: "I saw a parole officer and he didn't know what was going on. He said, 'Listen David, you're not supposed to be here if you didn't break the law. I don't know what to tell you.' He was so confused about it." Another violation of David's rights. If a law enforcement officer notices that the law is being broken, then there should be no "confusion," but affirmative action to release a man who was "not supposed to be here."

On December 12, 2006 David was transferred to Calhoun Prison, where he was informed of a parole date of May, 2007. [I have previously posted summaries of phone conversations with Georgia parole administrators that undermine the claim David was held in order to satisfy parole conditions.]

To make a long story further long, David was not paroled in May, 2007, but during this time was in deportation proceedings, unbeknownst to his attorney. Eventually, after appealing two more orders terminating David's removal to Mexico, the DHS attorney without comment withdrew their appeal.

On November 8, 2008 after serving every minute of a ten year sentence for a nonviolent and victimless crime, David was finally released. His two daughters, 17 and 14, have grown up without him. Were it not for the ICE hold, David at least would have had three more years of their childhood to enjoy, and less emotional distance to travel now. Even though they wrote him frequently, right now it's tough. "They look at me like I'm a stranger. I think they've got some anger. I can feel it, though I'm pretty sure with time it will be okay."

Toward the end of our conversation, David started to discuss the danger he feels even now because he knows ICE agents do not understand the laws they are supposed to be administering. He worries he could be stopped on the street at any point by the police or ICE and be forced to go through this all again. Describing one encounter with an agent who didn't understand how David qualified as a citizen "at birth," David told me that after he explained the section defining "citizens at birth", he told the ICE agent in the Alabama jail, "You're supposed to study the law first [before detaining people]." The agent replied, "I am not the one who is going to do the time."

This exchange summarizes a US racist legal culture that is not original with the Bush administration. Its resonance in immigration enforcement has deep roots. That David is going to do time is the reason that the agent SHOULD know the law, because, as the parole officer in Georgia said, only people who break the law should be in prison. When US government officials defend their actions on the grounds that only other people will be harmed, it is long past time for immigration agents and prison officers to have a crash course on the rule of law. If the only incentive they have to learn the law is government agents doing prison time, then so be it.

4 comments:

MEPiston said...

Its difficult to believe that over a period of years it was impossible for either David or any other family member to provide his attorney with evidence of citizenship. With such evidence (or even without it, so long as he believed Davide was telling the truth) his attorney could have brought a habeas corpus action in federal court. Once the matter was brought to an attention of a federal judge (or even an Assistant U.S. Attorney, virtually all of whom, in my experience, are anxious to see justice done in clear cases such as this one) I'm sure David would have been quickly ordered released. It doesn't seem like the government officials involved here with the only ones who failed to treat this matter with the seriousness and urgency it merited.

jacqueline stevens said...

What lawyer? Bernie Madoff's attorney was combing the Georgia prisons and David was remiss in not alerting him of David's need for help? David and his family are poor and could not afford to hire an attorney, nor was David eligible for a federal defender because of course removal proceedings are considered civil matters. As soon as Neil Rambana was accepted the pro bono appointment when David was transferred to ICE custody, he was extremely effective. But if you read the earlier posts, you'll see that the DHS ignored the termination order and appealed AND DID NOT SEND MR. RAMBANA A COPY OF THE APPEAL. Moreover, he is an immigration attorney and at that point David was back in the custody of the Georgia prisons. The only habeas cases of the sort you describe with which I am familiar have been pursued by law school legal clinics, and David wasn't lucky enough for them to find him. None of the USCs who have been misclassified as aliens in prison with whom I have spoken have the means for private criminal attorneys.

MEPiston said...

I guess what it comes down to is that filing a habeas petition was more work than David's attorney cared to do on a pro bono case. If so, then the real problem is, as you pointed out, lack of access to affordable, effective legal services. But please don't imply that preparing a habeas petition is somehow beyond the expertise of a mere "immigration attorney" or are such a major undertaking that only "law school legal clinics" or other major institutions can handle. Many immigration attorneys, myself included file them routinely, for good money when the client has it, sometimes low bono or pro bono when they don't. They can be surprisingly effective, if for no other reason than they get the attention of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, who as a rule certainly don't have the indifference to the law the ICE officials exposed in your post seem to have.

jacqueline stevens said...

Yes, we do agree that paid legal counsel would have helped. I'm not sure about your point about David's attorney deciding not to file a habeas petition. In 2006 Mr. Rambana was successful in having David's deportation order terminated and believed the government would follow the law and release David from custody. The DHS did not send Mr. Rambana a copy of its appeal, so he was not aware until 2008 that the DHS was continuing to try to deport David.
In the event, focusing on the actions of David's pro bono attorney, who succeeded in terminating deportation orders on three occasions and obtaining David's certificate of US citizenship, and not the egregious violations of law by numerous agents of the US government, seems a bit of a distraction.

 
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