Monday, February 8, 2010

ICE Agents Lose Track of US Citizens in their Custody, And the Rules for Releasing Them

On April 9, 2008, when I met Joe Anderson, then 30, through a televideo contraption, he was still in shock.

It had been over three months since ICE locked him up at the Pinal County Jail in southern Arizona while they were disputing his U.S. citizenship and Joe still couldn't believe it. His family lacked funds for an attorney and he was doing his best to represent himself, and also relying on the advice of overstretched attorneys at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which runs the EOIR's Legal Orientation Program in the area.

In late March, 2009 Joe was still there. Confusion and outrage were replaced by grief and frustration over the senseless deprivation of his liberty and the threat that he would be sent to a country he hadn't seen since infancy and where they spoke a language he couldn't understand.

Joe said he was keeping his eye out for shows on the Travel Channel, in case they had something on restaurants in the Philippines, the country to which his former state governor, Janet Napolitano, is trying to ship him. He was thinking it might be good to know about fancy tourist restaurants that might need a native English-speaker.

(I asked him about the access to cable television and he said ruefully, "Oh, yeah, they keep us well-entertained in here.")

Because he was born on a foreign military base, as was his Senator, John McCain (R-AZ), Joe's evidence of U.S. citizenship is more complicated than a simple birth certificate.

Under ICE procedures, ICE is prohibited from keeping him locked up while the government sorts this out.

A memorandum from John Morton, ICE Assistant Secretary dated November 19, 2009, which I obtained recently through a FOIA request, states:
If an individual already in custody claims to be a USC, an officer must immediately examine the merits of the claim and notify and consult with his or her local OCC [Office of Chief Counsel] ... If the individual's claim is credible on its face, or if the investigation results in probative evidence that the detained individual is a USC [US Citizen], the individual should be released from detention.
"Probative," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means "Having the quality or function of proving or demonstrating; affording proof or evidence; demonstrative, evidential."

Joe's birth certificate with his father's name on it, and the copious documentation of his father's marriage to Joe's mother as well as the rules for legitimacy and paternity in the places of his residence (California and Arizona) easily meet this criterion. Probative does not mean conclusive "proof," only that the evidence is relevant and could contribute to legal decision.

This morning I called the Pinal County Jail and spoke with Commander Montanyo. I told him that the jail he was running for ICE was holding someone over whom ICE had no legal authority. He gave me the number of the ICE deportation and removal office at the nearby Florence Service Processing Center (Orwell talk for ICE Jail).

I called the ICE jail where the ICE agents work in Florence and the operator said I needed to speak to "upper management." She connected me to the voice mail for Nicole Moore and I left a message indicating that her office was unlawfully ordering the confinement of someone with probative evidence of U.S. citizenship.

Because the procedures indicate that ICE prosecutors are supposed to review these cases, I called the DHS Phoenix office and spoke with the ICE desk attorney, Jim Harmony. I provided him with Joe's full name and "alien number" but Mr. Harmony said that he could not locate Joe in his database and questioned whether he was still being detained.

I gave Mr. Harmony the phone number of the Pinal County Jail as well as the phone numbers of two attorneys now assisting Joe with his appeals. He assured me he would investigate and provide me information he was authorized to make available to me.

A few hours later I called the Florence ICE jail and someone answered the phone.

Officer S. pulled up Joe's file and correctly pointed out that an "immigration judge" (hereafter EOIR attorney--these folks are NOT actual judges) and the Board of Immigration Appeals had found that Joe was not a U.S. citizen.

I pointed out that this was not a legally final determination of Joe's citizenship. BIA decisions on acquired and derived U.S. citizenship claim have been overturned by the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court and, recently, even by a district court judge- I will discuss Herbert Flores-Torres' case in a later post because it's so fabulous and also so complicated.

The rule I had quoted was not requiring ICE to release only people who had proven conclusively to be U.S. citizens--alas, ICE also needs education on this as well--but was indicating ICE agents lacked the legal authority to hold people who had "probative evidence" of U.S. citizenship.

Joe is not his father's biological son, but under the laws of Arizona and California, Joe is his father's legitimate son and this--along with the legal documents verifying this--is sufficient to trigger acquired U.S. citizenship. However, the BIA simply substituted their own understanding of paternity for the one in the law. In a related case in the Ninth Circuit, Herbert Flores-Torres recently prevailed in a derived citizenship claim that had been ruled invalid by an EOIR attorney and the BIA, but only after he had been held in ICE detention for two years.

The memorandum from Morton
While some cases may be easily resolved, because of the complexity of citizenship and nationality law, many require additional investigation and substantial legal analysis. As a matter of law, ICE cannot assert its civil immigration authority to arrest and/or detain a USC.
In the case of Mr. Flores-Torres, and thousands of other US citizens who have been confined by ICE, ICE has been demonstrably breaking this law.

Presumably that's why these procedures were developed. The only way that ICE can guarantee it is not confining U.S. citizens is if it releases people who are attempting to prove they are U.S. citizens.

DUH, right?

Except that Officer S. at the Florence ICE jail wasn't buying it. After telling me that the ICE records did not indicate Joe had even claimed US citizenship, which explains why his file had not been reviewed for release as the new procedures required, Officer S. kept repeating that the immigration judge and BIA had found against Joe and ICE was holding him for the appeal.

I repeated the points above and Officer S. said he would call me back.

True to his word, he called, "Can you send me a copy of what you were reading so I can send it to litigation?" I asked if he had misplaced his own copy or if he just had no idea what I was talking about. He said, "They come out with these new things every day."

Basically ICE was keeping its rules secret and then after I obtained them via a FOIA request, requiring me to send them their own rules in order for them to be enforced. (Sometimes I feel like ICE is detaining all the immigration attorneys, civil rights lawyers, and even me with this nonsense.)

"I was supposed to get out on my grandmother's birthday," December 23, 2007, Joe told me the first time we met. "She said that was the best present she could have." More than two Christmases later, in clear violation of ICE procedures, the law, and common sense, Joe remains locked up in the Pinal County Jail.

Jennie Pasquarella, staff attorney with the Southern California ACLU, after I explained the case, was struck by how long Joe's been detained: "Regardless of this memo, there's no good policy reason why someone with a credible claim to U.S. citizenship should be detained for years while they're fighting their case."

I'll be checking back in with the folks at ICE tomorrow and see if they have decided to read and follow their own rules.

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