Blog of Rights

One Too Many: New York Times Highlights American Citizens Detained Under S-Comm

By Sandhya Bathija, Washington Legislative Office at 3:31pm

The New York Times today exposed a persistent problem with the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration enforcement programs: American citizens are being unlawfully detained for extended periods.

In the report, the Times told the story of Antonio Montejano, an American citizen born in Los Angeles who was arrested while holiday shopping with his family, including his young children. “After his young daughter begged for a $10 bottle of cologne,” he inadvertently dropped it into a bag of items he had already purchased. When he left the store, he was arrested for shoplifting.

Antonio should have been able to post bond quickly at the Santa Monica police station for a minor charge. Instead, he was held on an immigration detainer issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and transferred to the county jail despite a criminal court judge’s decision to let him go. He was not released until four days after his arrest.

Antonio was detained because of the Obama administration’s Secure Communities program. He was flagged by the system because he was mistakenly deported to Mexico in 1996 and his records were not corrected. But as the Times report indicates, U.S. citizens have been detained based on all sorts of flaws in the department’s databases.

“Unlike the federal criminal databases administered by the F.B.I., homeland security records include all immigration transactions, not just violations,” the article points out. “An immigrant who has always maintained legal status, including those who naturalized to become American citizens, can still trigger a fingerprint match.”

ICE issues detainers based on this incorrect information and local law enforcement officials therefore hold people for up to 48 additional hours.

Antonio said that despite his repeatedly telling police about his American citizenship, they did not believe him. ICE Director John Morton is quoted in the Times article as saying that all claims to U.S. citizenship receive “immediate and close attention.” That did not occur in Antonio’s case.

“Just because I made one mistake,” Antonio said, “I don’t think they should have done all those things to me.” He thinks the police doubted his citizenship because of how he looks: “I look Mexican 100 percent.”

Antonio is not alone. According to the Times, while there are no official statistics on the exact number of Americans held erroneously in immigration detention facilities, in one study 82 U.S. citizens were held from 2006 to 2008 at two immigration detention centers in Arizona, for periods as long as a year.

But even just one U.S. citizen wrongly swept up by S-Comm is one too many.

The ACLU has urged the Department of Homeland Security to stop Secure Communities across the country.

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