Increasingly, American citizens being swept up in U.S. immigration raids

The Takeaway

The administration of President Barack Obama has deported some 1.1 million illegal immigrants, a record number.

But some Americans are getting swept up in the immigrant sweeps. An investigation into the secure communities program has found that hundreds of U.S. citizens were detained by law enforcement who thought they were illegal immigrants.

Julia Preston, national immigration correspondent for The New York Times, said there aren’t good numbers about the number of Americans who have been detained, because there’s no system in place to track them.

“In recent months, and particularly in recent weeks, there’s been just a rush of these cases coming forward where American citizens were held in local jails for days at a time on immigration detainers,” Preston said.

The Department of Homeland Security has implemented a new program where anyone who’s booked into a local jail on a criminal charge can have their fingerprints checked against a national database that looks for illegal immigrants.

“Based on some match with the Homeland Security database, a detainer will be issued and the person will not be released until they resolve their issue,” Preston said.

Antonio Montejano spent two extra nights in jail for just that reason, despite being born in Los Angeles.

He had been arrested and ordered to pay a $50 fine. Once he did that, judge ordered his release. Except, instead of being released he was transferred to the Los Angeles county jail, where he was told he was on an immigration hold.

“As soon as I got there, I tried to tell the officers, every officer, that I am an American citizen. But nobody believed me there,” Montejano said.

The ACLU sent a copy of his passport and birth certificate to the police and after two days he was released.

Montejano said when he finally got home, his son asked him if he too would be detained by immigration authorities, because they looked alike.

“I never expected to have my kid ask me those kinds of questions,” he said.

Preston said that example, one of many, is why it’s so important to shed light on this issue.

“Every one of these cases where an American citizen is detained on immigration suspicion is a possible, wrongful arrest,” Preston said. “The Department of Homeland Security and the immigration authorities do not have any power under the law to detain a U.S. citizen for any amount of time.”

Though the cases aren’t tremendously numerous, Preston said, any one is a potentially very serious offense.

Though Montejano was able to work with the ACLU to prove his citizenship, it could have very easily gone a different way and he could have spent more time waiting to hear from federal authorities. None of this should have happened, Preston said.

“He was essentially detained for four days on no legal authority,” Preston said. “I think the Department of Homeland Security is aware that this problem is happening and they’ve taken some measures to issue a new detainer form, make it easier for people to communicate. But this is the kind of thing we see happening when immigration enforcement is expanded down to the local level.”

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