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What ICE Reveals About Itself When It Detains U.S. Citizens

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal. Americans might be forgiven for overlooking immigration news of late. Some have been busy trying to ease their disappointment over the Mueller hearings, and many, apparently, have […]

hoto by David McNew/Getty Images.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

Americans might be forgiven for overlooking immigration news of late. Some have been busy trying to ease their disappointment over the Mueller hearings, and many, apparently, have been furiously Googling Marianne Williamson. But in the meantime, last week the House Judiciary Committee held hearings about continued family separation, long after the Trump administration claimed to have ended the practice. And several news stories about ICE imprisoning U.S. citizens, some of them children, have appeared.

In late June, Francisco Erwin Galicia, a high school student, was on a road trip headed for a college soccer team tryout with his brother and a group of friends when they were stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Texas. Agents asked for papers, and Galicia, 18, was prepared: He had a wallet-size Texas birth certificate, a Texas ID card, and a Social Security card. But Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained Galicia anyway because the agents thought his documents might be fraudulent. He remained in detention for nearly a month, becoming one of “hundreds of American citizens in recent years who, mistakenly targeted by federal immigration authorities, have been forced to prove their citizenship while the threat of deportation hangs over their head,” according to the Washington Post.

Why should we focus on the small fraction of immigration cases where U.S. citizens are detained, and not the thousands of noncitizens detained every day? On one level, we shouldn’t. Everyone in immigration detention is subject to astoundingly degrading conditions. During Galicia’s month in custody, he says he lost 26 pounds, and was not allowed to shower or brush his teeth. “It was inhumane how they treated us,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “It got to the point where I was ready to sign a deportation paper just to not be suffering there anymore. I just needed to get out of there.” Galicia, an American citizen who was born here and has lived here his entire life, was so broken by conditions in detention after less than one month, that he would have chosen deportation. Imagine, for a moment, how much hardship migrants are fleeing in their home countries, such that they would endure detention for far longer periods. Maybe it’s best not to spend too long imagining what it does to young children, especially those separated from their parents, if you want to accomplish anything today.

Cases like Galicia’s also highlight how people, citizens and noncitizens, can get swept up by agents during raids and arrests and even routine stops. Galicia was swept up because others in the car did not have proper identification. His 17-year-old brother, Marlon, who does not have legal status in the U.S., only had a school ID, and even though Galicia himself had plenty of identification, the officers seemed perfectly willing to risk detaining a citizen. In fact, there seemed to be no downside for the officers at all.

And before even addressing questions of intentional cruelty, it’s important to address baseline competence. Since Trump’s election, he has promised to make life worse for immigrants, in part, by hiring an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 immigration officers. This hiring spree is reminiscent of a similar frenzy between 2003 and 2009, when both agencies doubled in size. The rapid staffing increase came with lowered hiring standards, shorter training, and delayed or neglected background checks.

It led to hires like Oscar Ortiz Martinez, who got a job with CBP in 2006 but terminated in 2007 when a background check revealed that his ex-wife had taken out a restraining order against him. “Undeterred, he reapplied in 2008 and was hired,” reports the San Diego Union-Tribune. Months later, a girlfriend accused Ortiz of stalking, and shortly thereafter, Ortiz was investigated for partnering with an employee at the immigration jail to smuggle drug shipments into the country. He was eventually convicted of bribery. “Officials would later acknowledge the pressure to meet the hiring goals allowed less qualified candidates onto the force,” according to the Union-Tribune.

“The last time the Border Patrol received a large infusion of money to hire thousands of new agents, cases of corruption and misconduct spiked in the agency,” a 2017 report by the American Immigration Council concluded. “New hires were not sufficiently vetted, novice agents were not adequately supervised, and agents who abused their authority acted with impunity.” Guillermo Cantor, research director for the immigration advocacy council, told the Washington Postthat his group “analyzed tons of government records and showed the multiple ways in which Border Patrol agents regularly overstep the boundaries of their authority by using excessive force, employing coercive tactics and misinformation to deport migrants from the U.S., and retaining migrants’ personal belongings, to mention just a few examples.”

And then there is the obvious racism and xenophobia underlying the entire endeavor. ICE agents have, for example, detained U.S. citizens simply for speaking Spanish. Even if immigration agents were competent, and even if arrests were aimed at, as President Barack Obama famously and falsely promised, “felons, not families,” it would still be motivated by racism. Legislative changes in the 1980s and 1990s vastly expanded the crime-based grounds for deportation, and eliminated many forms of discretionary relief. “As a result of these changes, immigrant communities have experienced skyrocketing rates of detention and deportation, with a disparate impact on people of color,” writes professor of clinical law Alina Das in a 2018 academic article. Das argues that “criminal records have never been a neutral means for prioritizing immigrants for detention and deportation from the United States.” Instead, “racial animus has driven the creation and development of crime-based deportation from the beginning.”

This kind of race-based enforcement is meant to convey to people of color a “lack of belonging and safety in this country,” one immigration advocate told The Daily Appeal. The use of legal authority to detain and deport noncitizens is only one part, the advocate explained. “The chaos, the emotional terror, and the inhumane conditions are other ways to communicate the same message.”

Was it racism or incompetence (or some combination) when ICE detained Davino Watson, a U.S. citizen who happens to be Black, for over three years while he tried to prove his citizenship without access to an attorney? When ICE finally released Watson, who was from New York, they left him in rural Alabama with no money and no explanation. They kept trying to deport him for another year. (A court later ruled that he cannot sue because the statute of limitations expired while he was detained.) Was it racism or incompetence when, in March of this year, CBP detained 9-year-old Julia Medina for 32 hours without her parents, despite her being a U.S. citizen? She was crossing the border, as she does each morning to get to school, when CBP detained her and her 14-year-old brother, saying she didn’t look like the photo in her passport. They also accused her brother, also a U.S. citizen, of human smuggling, and tried to have him sign a document saying his sister was his cousin.

Detaining citizens also highlights the indifference to human suffering, which has grown so extreme in that many have become convinced that the cruelty is the point. When another U.S. citizen was detained by ICE, an officer greeted her by saying, “Here, you are nobody. You are nothing.” The inhumanity of the system was typified recently by a suspicious job posting for a doctor to work at an immigrant detention facility in rural Louisiana that promised a salary of $400,000 for a doctor with just two years’ experience and no board certification. The main requirement, it appeared, was that the person be “philosophically committed to the objectives of this facility.” On NPR, Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine and a member of Physicians for Human Rights, said that reading the listing was “really very concerning—even chilling.”

State cruelty is often justified by framing it as a tradeoff between security and liberty. But in these cases, there is simply no security risk to justify the suffering, a point Representative Ted Lieu demonstrated in the little-watched judiciary hearingson child separation last week. He asked Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement operations for CBP, about Sofi, a 3-year-old who was separated from her grandmother after they arrived at a port of entry seeking asylum. She remained separated from her family for 47 days.

Lieu: Sofi is not a criminal or a national security threat to the United States as a 3-year-old, correct?

Hastings: I don’t know the background in this case, sir.

Lieu: Do you know any 3-year-olds that are criminal or national security threats to the United States?

Hastings: No, I don’t.

Republicans in power, it seems, fear that immigrants and their children will not vote for them. And more immediately, they know that much of their popularity depends on stoking ethnic and racial divides. So the only security threat in this case is to Republican job security, which apparently is far too valuable to compromise for the sake of a 3-year-old’s liberty.