Duarnis Perez, a native of the Dominican Republic, became a U.S. citizen at 15 when his mother was naturalized. But he didn't know that meant he was also a citizen. He thought he was an illegal immigrant, and so did the authorities. He was deported and subsequently arrested trying to sneak back into the U.S. from Canada. Perez spent almost five years in prison for unlawful reentry. But when he was released in 2004, an official of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) reviewed his file and told him he had been a citizen all along.
The Perez case is one of a growing chamber of horrors coming under increasing scrutiny by Congress, the Courts, and civil liberties advocates.
Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement downplay the problem. "ICE does not detain United States citizens," said spokesman Richard Rocha, adding that agents thoroughly investigate people's claims of citizenship. "ICE only processes an individual for removal when all available facts indicate that the person is an alien," he said.
Another case involved Majed Chehade, a 64-year old German citizen whose wife, three children, and grandson are U.S. citizens. Chehade owns a home in Massachusetts and is the export director of a German manufacturing company. He was on his way to visit his daughter in December, 2006, when he was detained at Las Vegas Airport. He was taken to a local jail, where he was subjected to strip and visual cavity searches, denied access to medical care and his prescription medications, and told that if he wanted to return to the U.S., he would have to spy on behalf of the government.
In that case, a federal judge rejected the government's request to have the case dismissed, finding that strip searches of immigrants arriving in the country, including those housed at local detention facilities, are constitutional only if supported by reasonable suspicion. The court further held that the immigration agents' actions could be considered "extreme and outrageous conduct" and allowed an inquiry into the legality of the government's attempt to conscript a foreign national to spy to move forward.
Civil liberties organizations say these are not aberrations or isolated cases. They contend that they show a clear pattern of bureaucratic inefficiency, a lack of respect for the law, and the absence of clear guidelines for immigration officers.
Immigration authorities detain more than 300,000 men, women and children every year in a network of some 400 private facilities and state and local jails. Unlike other federal incarceration systems, there are no binding regulations that govern the conditions in those facilities.
Civil liberties advocates say the immigration detention system has caused an as-yet unknown number of deaths in recent years and subjected thousands of immigrants to inhumane conditions. A Washington Post investigation concluded that the system was "a hidden world of flawed medical judgments, faulty administrative practices, neglectful guards, ill-trained technicians, sloppy record-keeping, lost medical files and dangerous staff shortages."