Thousands Of U.S. Citizens Illegally Detained In Crackdown On Undocumented Immigrants

In their zeal to crack down on undocumented immigrants, federal immigration officials have accidentally arrested and tried to deport thousands of U.S. citizens in the past year alone. Americans who find themselves in this nightmarish situation say their protests to the police fall on deaf ears, and they are denied any opportunity to communicate with immigration agents to clarify the situation.

Some citizens are held for a few days while the situation is resolved, but others have been locked in prison for months. Take the case of Anthony A. Clarke, a Minneapolis man who was arrested and illegally detained for 43 days while federal agents tried to deport him:

Clarke’s case is the apparent fallout of an aggressive ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] campaign to deport illegal immigrants who also have criminal records that show up during cross-checks of federal databases.

While those efforts have resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of dangerous criminals, thousands of U.S. citizens have been snagged along the way, in part because agents operate in a secretive judicial environment where detention hearings are held out of public view.

After a detailed examination of federal immigration records, Prof. Jacqueline Stevens of Northwestern University estimated this year that about 4,000 American citizens were illegally detained or deported as aliens in 2010. In a study published last summer, she found that as many as 20,000 citizens may have been wrongly held or deported since 2003.

FBI records show that immigration agents were aware of Clarke’s legal status at the time he was arrested, and detained him anyway. The New York Times notes that “Any case where an American is held, even briefly, for immigration investigation is a potential wrongful arrest because immigration agents lack legal authority to detain citizens.” Clarke has filed a lawsuit in federal court.

In another horrifying case, a mentally-disabled citizen was actually deported and sent to prisons in Honduras and Guatemala before he was finally able to convince authorities there that he was an American.

The reason for the rising number of mistaken arrests appears to be ICE’s rapid expansion of Secure Communities, a deportation program, which has ballooned under President Obama and is widely criticized for eroding the trust between local police and immigrant communities and making it less likely that people will report crimes. Under the program, the fingerprints of every person booked at local jails are checked against Department of Homeland Security immigration databases. But the database is riddled with errors and routinely flags citizens as undocumented immigrants.

The administration’s harsh enforcement practices have resulted in 1.1 million deportations since the beginning of President Obama’s term, the highest numbers in six decades.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune observes that these stories “raise disturbing questions about the tactics of immigration agents and the adequacy of checks and balances in a parallel court system overseeing the…ICE agency.”