American Citizens face Immigration Arrests due to Weak Legal Protections


Recent news shows how illegal immigrants are not the only ones facing immigration arrests. When Jhon Ocampo received a phone call from his stepdaughter one day in 2012 saying immigration officials were at his house, he quickly got on the line and tried to explain to the officers that he was an American citizen.

But the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers told him to come home, arrested him and initiated deportation proceedings against him, claiming he was in the country illegally, Ocampo said. The Springfield resident spent a week in three detention centers across Illinois before a lawyer hired by his mother called ICE, which then confirmed his citizenship and released him in Chicago.

Experts estimate that Ocampo is among thousands of people who have become entangled with immigration authorities despite being American citizens. ICE is prohibited by law from arresting and detaining citizens, and according to agency policy, officers should investigate claims of citizenship and avoid taking people into custody if evidence suggests the claims are true.

The Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, which represented Ocampo in his lawsuit, said it has represented 11 other citizens across the country with similar cases since 2010. One pending lawsuit involves a New York man who spent three years in immigration detention despite being a citizen.

A University of California at Berkeley study estimated that from 2008 to 2011, about 3,600 citizens were arrested by ICE through Secure Communities, a discontinued program through which local police departments sent fingerprints of their arrestees to the federal agency so it could identify people who fit the criteria for deportation.

Experts say weak legal procedural guarantees for those suspected of being here illegally and difficulties proving citizenship, along with programs through which law enforcement shares information about arrests with ICE, contribute to citizens being mistakenly caught up in immigration-related arrests, detentions and sometimes deportations.

“When people argue they’re citizens, ICE fights them every single time,” said Lena Graber, an attorney at the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “There’s a question about whether that’s the right posture to take.”