U.S. Citizen Sues Federal Immigration Agency For Detaining Him For 36 Days

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

The U.S. and U.S. Department of Homeland Security flags fly over the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas on Thursday, July 31, 2014. Federal officials gave a tour of the South Texas immigration detention facility that has been retooled to house adults with children who have been apprehended at the border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Ricardo Garza, who is a U.S. citizen, had just posted bail at the Grand Prairie Police Department Detention Center after he was charged with driving while intoxicated when a jailer asked him about his citizenship status.

“I was maybe 3 feet away from breathing fresh air,” Garza told the Texas Tribune, which first reported his story. “And [the jailer] said ‘What’s your name? What’s your birthdate? What’s your social? Where were you born?’”

Garza told jail officials that he was born in Mexico, but had since become a citizen of this country. When the jail contacted the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to verify his immigration status, however, federal immigration officials weren’t so sure. They told the jail they believed Garza was actually a U.S. permanent resident whose criminal history could make him eligible for deportation.

ICE officials asked the jail to detain Garza using an immigration “hold” — also known as a detainer — to give them time to pick him up for potential deportation proceedings. Dallas County Jail held him without allowing him to post bond. ICE didn’t drop Garza’s detainer until 36 days later, when his lawyer provided additional proof that he obtained U.S. citizenship through his mother, who naturalized three decades ago.

Garza is now suing Dallas County and Sheriff Lupe Valdez, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in Dallas County, saying the county violated his constitutional rights by denying him the ability to post bond. Six other former Dallas County inmates who say they were refused immediate release on bond are also joining the federal civil rights lawsuit.

Eric Puente, Garza’s attorney, likened his jail stay to pretrial detention.

According to the lawsuit, “attempting to post bond is known as a futile exercise for those with immigration holds, because it will not result in immediate release. The scheme has predictable effects. Because Dallas County will not immediately release those on bond, individuals with immigration holds generally do not attempt to post bond, and Dallas County maintains pretrial detention over almost all individuals with immigration holds.”

Garza’s case highlights the complicated process that can occur when naturalized citizens commit crimes. According to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, “the government can attempt to take away the citizenship of a naturalized citizen if they can show that his/her naturalization application was ‘fraudulent’ or contained certain omissions or mistakes (for example, if a person failed to disclose an arrest or conviction).”

His case is not unique. By some estimates, thousands of citizens are deported each year, mostly by accident. One naturalized citizen who was accidentally deported to Mexico, was finally allowed to come back to the country after 1,055 days. An American-born teenage runaway from Texas was deported to Colombia after officials were unable to determine her true identity or immigration status.

A 2011 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law study conducted by Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, found that “recent data suggests that in 2010 well over 4,000 U.S. citizens were detained or deported as aliens, raising the total since 2003 to more than 20,000.” And the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that ICE agents placed detainers on 834 U.S. citizens between 2008 and 2012.