PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — For three days in July 2016, immigration officials detained a man who became a U.S. citizen more than 20 years agodespite repeated assertions of his citizenship.
Sergio Carrillo of Rialto, Calif., was born in Mexico and became a citizen in 1994. Yet Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detained him at the Adelanto, Calif., Detention Facility about 40 miles away.
How did that happen? Federal immigration authorities had no record of his citizenship in their database — a common problem for people who were naturalized before 2008 — according to lawyer Jennie Pasquarella, the American Civil Liberties Union of California’s director of immigrants’ rights.
Authorities later discovered Carrillo’s last name was incorrectly listed in the database as “Cabrillo,” according to court filings.
Carrillo and the ACLU sued the federal government and 10 ICE officers in July; they reached a $20,000 settlement this week. The agreement is not an admission of liability or fault on the part of the government, according to the settlement.
The case highlights several problems with the country’s immigration system, Pasquarella said.
“They’re relying on these databases that are just completely erroneous,” she said.
On top of that, immigration officials relied on limited information to make Carrillo’s arrest, Pasquarella said.
They detained him based on evidence of his birth in Mexico and the lack of citizenship information in federal, state or local databases, according to a court filing on behalf of the government.
“It’s not like the criminal justice system,” Pasquarella said. “There is no double check on the (immigration) system to make sure there’s really a reason for arresting somebody.”
In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it “would never knowingly take enforcement action against or detain an individual if there was probative evidence indicating the person was a U.S. citizen. Should such information come to light, the agency will take immediate action to address the matter.”
In July 2016, ICE agents anonymously called and texted Carrillo, who is a contractor and landscaper, asking him about his whereabouts. They arrested him at a Home Depot in Rialto that day, according to the lawsuit he filed in this past July.
Carrillo repeatedly told the officials that he was a U.S. citizen throughout the time they were detaining him, transferring him, and booking him at a processing facility in Los Angeles, according to his suit.
He alleges they ignored his assertions, violating a policy directive issued in 2015 that requires immigration officials “assess the potential U.S. citizenship of any individual encountered by ICE if the individual makes or has made a claim to U.S. citizenship.”
Carrillo was transported to Adelanto, where an officer also ignored his citizenship claims, according to the lawsuit. He remained there for three days until a lawyer provided officials with his U.S. passport.
ICE officials then discovered Carrillo’s name was incorrectly entered into the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services database. The record and his fingerprints were not digitized and electronically stored when his citizenship certificate was issued, so they were not available in any database, according to court filings.
There isn’t good data on how many U.S. citizens get caught in the federal government’s net, but Pasquarella of the ACLU suspects the number is “quite high.”
She pointed to the case of Guadalupe Plascencia, a citizen for about 20 years, who was detained in March in San Bernardino. Plascencia was released once her daughter proved her citizenship.
Too often in the immigration system “it’s guilty until proven innocent,” Pasquarella said. “It’s the exact reverse of what the Constitution demands.”
To avoid being detained like Carrillo or Plascencia, naturalized citizens could memorize their Alien Registration Number or “A” Number, said immigration lawyer Hadley Bajramovic of Riverside, Calif.
This number identifies people who have applied to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for permanent residence or citizenship. Memorizing the eight- or nine-digit number the way others memorize their Social Security numbers would be easier than always carrying documents, she said.