Jhon Erik Ocampo, a U.S. citizen, was recently awarded $20,000 in damages to compensate him for his 2012 arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and subsequent seven-day detention. Yes, he attempted to explain to the ICE officers who arrested him that he was a U.S. citizen–but he couldn’t show proof.
This lack of proof is a common situation for people who “derive” U.S. citizenship. That’s a legal term meaning that, although the person him- or herself was not born in the U.S., a U.S. citizen parent was a citizen or became a naturalized citizen while the child held a green card and lived in the U.S., so that the child became a citizen automatically, by operation of law. (See Nolo’s articles on Acquiring or Deriving Citizenship Through Parents; the exact rules vary depending on the year in which the child was born.)
One way to obtain such proof is to apply for a U.S. passport; but the State Department isn’t always attentive to the rules of derivation, and may deny it.
Another way is to apply to USCIS using Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship (available from the Forms page of the USCIS website). Mr. Ocampo apparently sent in this form multiple times, with no results. (Normal USCIS processing times for Forms N-600 are several months, but it’s an application that often slips to the bottom of USCIS’s priority list.)
So, for lack of proof, Mr. Ocampo endured a week in custody, and was shuttled between two county jails in Illinois before finally someone at ICE took a closer look at his records, confirmed his U.S. citizenship, and let him go.
Is $20,000 enough to compensate for the loss of a week out of Mr. Ocampo’s life, not to mention the fear that no one would confirm his citizenship and he might be sent out of the country that had been his rightful home for years?
Impossible to say–though there may be some basis for comparison, because ICE has made similar mistakes in literally thousands of cases over the years, according to a 2011 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law study conducted by Jacqueline Stevens, professor of political science at Northwestern University.
Let’s just say that Ocampo would likely have been awarded much more if he’d been among the many documented cases where ICE failed to discover its mistake until after having deported the person. (If deported is the right word at all. You can’t legally “deport” a U.S. citizen; commentators have suggested “kidnapped” or “banished.”)
Take the case of Andres Robles Gonzalez, also a U.S. citizen by virtue of derivation. He was reportedly arrested for allegedly violating U.S. immigration laws. ICE ignored his assertions that he was a U.S. citizen, and placed him in deportation proceedings, after which it removed him to Mexico, in December 2008. He wasn’t allowed back into the U.S. until 2011. His damage award? $350,000.
Then there’s Mark Lyttle, who was born in North Carolina, didn’t speak any Spanish, and yet was deported to Mexico. It took him approximately a year to find a sympathetic consular officer to help him make contact with his family (who had thought he might be dead). He received $175,000.
I wish I could find out what, if any damage award was made to Mario Guerrero Cruz. Born a U.S. citizen, he was mistakenly deported in 1995. When he tried to reenter the U.S., he was reportedly arrested and then convicted of illegal reentry and impersonating a U.S. citizen, and sentenced to over seven years in federal prison.
One thing is clear, however. U.S. authorities could save a lot of money if they’d stop pursuing people who never should have been in immigration custody in the first place–and then have to pay them for their trouble later.