After 50 Years as a Legal Immigrant, I Spent 18 Months in Immigration Detention Without a Bail Hearing

Arnold Giammarco in his US Army uniform.

One Saturday afternoon in 2011, my wife and daughter were out, and I was on my front steps, talking on the phone with my sister. Three law enforcement cars drove up, and I told my sister, “Something must be going on.” Suddenly, agents got out and started running toward me. They said, “Drop the phone. Get on your belly. Put your hands behind your back!” They handcuffed me and drove me away.

Even though I had been a legal permanent resident of the United States for about 50 years and served in the U.S. Army, they told me they worked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and they were going to deport me because of an old larceny charge for which I’d already completed my sentence.

I had gone through a rough patch in my life when my first marriage fell apart and I developed a drug problem. I deeply regretted my past, and I had also paid for it. I had served time for drug possession and related shoplifting convictions.

Since then, I had turned my life around. I got clean and moved to a new town where I didn’t know anyone. I started working at McDonald’s and was promoted to nighttime manager. I married my wife Sharon, who is from Connecticut. Our daughter, Blair, was born in November 2008. I spent my days taking care of Blair, so Sharon could go back to school. We didn’t have everything we wanted, but we had everything we needed: food in the fridge, a used car to get us to work, our families. Life was working out for us.

Giammarco family at the beach
Arnold and Sharon Giammarco, with their daughter Blair

Then I applied to renew my green card and I may have triggered a background check. I had no idea there was any risk — I had been in the country legally too long to worry about my immigration status.

My parents had brought me to the United States from Italy when I was four years old, sponsored by my grandparents, who had become U.S. citizens. My parents got factory jobs in Connecticut — my mother as a seamstress and my father as a maintenance worker. It was expensive to apply for citizenship, and my parents never did.

That seemed like a formality — I was American. My grandfather joined the U.S. Army and fought in World War I, and I grew up hearing his stories. In 1976, I followed in his footsteps and joined the Army to serve my country and went to Germany. Later I joined the Connecticut National Guard, achieving the rank of sergeant, and then I was honorably discharged. I applied for citizenship in 1982, but my application somehow got lost in the system.

Once I was arrested, my past didn’t seem to matter. I was kept in detention for 18 months with no bond hearing to decide whether I should be free. An immigration judge could have considered my military service, my rehabilitation, my family and community ties, and let me out — but no judge got that chance. Under the government’s view of the immigration laws, my crime was an aggravated felony that required detention until my deportation case was decided. There was no possibility of getting out unless I won the case.

At first, four or five days a week, Sharon would drive Blair an hour and a half up from Groton, Connecticut, to visit me in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. I could only see them from behind glass. Blair was 2, and she didn’t understand why I wouldn’t pick her up — she would cry and reach for me. I tried to make up games: Blair would move her hand on one side of the glass, and I would follow her motions with my hand on the other side.

Soon, Sharon cut the visits to once a week, on Sundays. Gas was expensive, and the trip was hard on Blair. We kept getting our hopes up that I’d be released, then we’d get disappointed again. The legal battle had drained our “piggybank” of a few thousand dollars we’d been saving for Blair to go to college, and my parents’ pension fund. It was devastating to see my family struggle, emotionally and financially.

For me, being locked up changed the course of my life. I worried I was wasting my family’s energy and money. Eventually, rather than staying on to fight my case from behind bars, I accepted deportation to Italy, a country where I barely speak the language.

Now I’m living in a central Italian town called Campo Di Fano. It’s where I was born, but it’s not my home. My cousins here don’t acknowledge me because they think I must have done something horrible to be deported. They say, “You can’t just get deported for addiction and petty crimes.” I say, “Well, I did.”

I try to Skype with Blair twice a day, when she wakes up in the morning and after school. I help her with her homework, like I would if I was there. She’ll set up the iPhone on the dresser and do a dance routine for me.

Giammarco family skypeing
Since Arnold Giammarco was deported to Italy, a country he barely knows, he tries to Skype with his wife, Sharon, and daughter, Blair in Connecticut several times a day.

All I want is to go home and take care of her and Sharon — and I hope that still might be possible. After I left for Italy, a district court judge ruled that my naturalization petition, which had gotten lost in the system years ago, remains pending. Officials could still decide to approve my application.

A bond hearing could have made the difference for me. A judge might have allowed me to go home, to my family, where I’m needed most. That would have given me hope to continue to fight for my right to stay with them in my country.

On Wednesday, lawyers from the ACLU are arguing before the Supreme Court that the federal government should not lock people like me up, for months or years, without the due process of a hearing to decide if imprisonment is even justified. Thousands of lives depend on this. What happened to me shouldn’t happen to anyone in America.

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Anonymous

Thank you for sharing your story Arnold. It's shocking that this kind of thing can happen in America. Imagine how many lives and families have been shattered by events like these - stories we are never able to hear.

Anonymous

Our country talks a great line, but when it comes down to bare facts, we can really suck.

Jon Figueroa

I experienced very similar issues. I found out I was wanted, I turned myself in, I plead guilty, I served my time where I received commendations from the Warden and officers for my work as a trustee. I was immediately taken to immigration hold at my release. Now, I am an American Citizen so you can imagine my bewilderment at that point. I was not granted any hearing, as you weren't, because of the nature of my crime. Every month I was given a court date to settle the matter. My family gathered all the required paperwork showing my citizenship. I was born in Mexico, yes, but right at the border because the town my grand parents lived in didn't have a hospital at the time of my birth and Tucson was considered too far away to be safe. My father was an officer in the Air Force, both my grand parents were born in Phx Arizona. I was the only one without a u.s. passport. I had been a resident alien because my father was told that because I was born in Mexico, it didn't matter who he was. Anyway, all the proof required to release me was in a folder that the U.S. INS attorney had in his possession. Every month we went to court, ready to be release. Every month, the US INS was different and asked for a continuance because he/she wasn't prepared. Every month they were granted the continuance. Finally, after 10 months, I had had enough. I asked to speak and was only granted that right after I fired my attorney right there on the spot. When I was done speaking the judge agreed to the continuance but only until the following Monday, it was a Friday at the time. Apparently, the judge found my argument more than persuasive because I was released that Sunday afternoon. I didn't even have to go back to court. The guards told me that they couldn't even put restraints on me. I fully believe the US government was making an effort to have me just give up and be deported. Being of Basque heritage and my father's son, that was NEVER going to happen.

The system is oppressive and, I believe, a money making scheme to keep people incarcerated as a revenue stream to the jails holding the people of record. THIS HAS TO STOP.

Michael J Denis...

I can only imagine the pain this has caused you and your family. With the new administration, I wonder how many more cases there will be like this. That is why I PROUDLY support the ACLU -- someone has to look out for the rights of people in this country, like you!

beth

This is so sad and I think its only going to get worse.. God bless and keep you and your family I pray that he blesses you and your family and gets this mess straightened out!

Randy

I am ashamed of this country I was born into... and, I apologize to you on behalf of the very many people here who empathize with your situation. It's good that your story is being told and I hope many of the unenlightened citizens find and read this. Of course, you are not the only one...no solace in that, I understand. It is a terrible thing that is happening here...I don't know your particular situation but I would try to get my loved ones out of here, and with you (again, I write with no knowledge of your life's details...and this may not be the best move for you..who knows what risk they may find themselves under if this new, fascist administration does what is currently threatened? I urge the ACLU and friends/family to, at least, begin a crowdfunding campaign...and I will do my best to spread your story as far and wide as possible. The vast majority of good people left in this country (USA) are oblivious to what is going on and worse, what is to come. Ciao, brother... may you and your family be reunited soon...and live peacefully...away from judgemental relatives and others.

Anonymous

Does the ACLU intend to request an address the 2016 Electoral College? Will the ACLU prepare and present a challenge to his presidency on December 19 if Donald Trump does not change coarse?

Anonymous

Good luck Arnold!

After serving in our military, this is how they treat you? A shame.

Thank you for taking this to court and fighting for yourself and others in our country!

FRED SCHWARTZ

This is the American government. They never make mistakes. Wait until Sheriff Joe is in charge of Homeland Security. He will deport anybody.

michelle shahjhan

I'm literally sobbing my eyes right now. I'm on lunch break and hiding so no one will see. Your family is going through exactly what mine is going through. It's been total hell for us, and I haven't seen my husband since 2009. My daughter is now 16 and hasn't seen him since she was 9. We're still fighting to bring him home, but with Trump about to take office , we're afraid and despairing of him ever coming home. Our lives are shattered, and I'm seriously ill. If anything happens to me, my daughter has no one. We lost everything for no reason, and are barely surviving. God bless you sir, and your family. And thank you for your service to America. My heart is with you.

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