Immigration Enforcement Put American Citizens In Immigrant Detention, Lawsuit Alleges

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) improperly apprehended and detained an American citizen, Gerardo Gonzalez Jr., according to a class-action lawsuit filed on Wednesday by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC).

The ACLU believes that ICE officers kept Gonzalez in custody without probable cause, disregarding his proof of U.S. citizenship and relying “on the sole fact that a law enforcement officer wrote that Gonzalez was born in Mexico following his arrest on a drug charge.”

Gonzalez’s case most likely qualifies as a wrongful arrest, since immigration agents do not have the legal authority to detain citizens. But his apprehension, detention, and the lawsuit itself are nothing new. In fact, the suit is only the latest in a long string of lawsuits filed by the ACLU on behalf of American citizens.

Between 2008 to 2012, ICE issued immigration detainers — notices that give ICE the permission to take custody of suspected noncitizens — to over 830 American citizens and 28,000 legal permanent residents. Because there is not a central registry to determine citizenship, and because detainees facing deportation are not appointed legal counsel, it can be possible for detainees to stay in federal custody for a long period of time. This happened to 82 people who were held at two Arizona immigration detention centers for “periods as long as a year.” Mentally disabled American citizens are also indiscriminately detained as was the case of North Carolina-born Mark Lyttle, who was detained for 51 days, then deported to Mexico.


Although ICE issued a memo to take a more stringent approach to guiding its officers to place detainers only for noncitizens, the ACLU lawsuit charges that ICE “did not change the actual evidentiary standards required before ICE agents request a person’s detention.” In some instances, it’s been reported that ICE agents rely on “’foreign-sounding’ last names, languages, or appearance to determine whether individuals are noncitizens who may be subject to detainers.”