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U.S. Citizen Jailed in Immigration Status Mistake

29 Feb

Ricardo Garza was just a few footsteps from freedom when the trouble started.

He had posted bail and was on his way out the door of the Grand Prairie Police Department Detention Center — where he had been booked on charges of driving while intoxicated — when a jailer began asking questions.

“I was maybe 3 feet away from breathing fresh air,” Garza recalled. “And [the jailer] said ‘What’s your name? What’s your birthdate? What’s your social? Where were you born?’”

That last question, and the way police reacted to his answer, would throw the 46-year-old warehouse manager into the messy intersection of local law enforcement and U.S. immigration policy, ultimately triggering a federal lawsuit.

Garza told jail officials he was born in Mexico but had since become a U.S. citizen. But when the jail contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to verify his status, federal immigration officials told jailers they believed Garza was a U.S. permanent resident whose criminal history potentially made him a deportable immigrant.

Their request to Grand Prairie: Don’t let him out.

What happened next highlighted the conflicting pressures local jails face when it comes to foreign-born inmates: On one hand, state and federal lawmakers want local law enforcement officials to be tough on immigrants accused of crimes. On the other, civil rights activists and immigrant advocates want federal immigration authorities to stop asking local jails to turn over information on people who are arrested. They cite the detention of potential citizens as Exhibit A in their quest.

ICE placed a detainer on Garza on Oct. 30, 2015, 13 days after he was arrested, the same day he was transferred to Dallas County Jail. A detainer is the agency’s way of asking a jail to delay an inmate’s release by up to 48 hours so immigration officials can take them into custody. Dallas County decided to hold Garza without allowing him to post bond. Garza’s detainer was not canceled until Dec. 5 — 36 days later — when his attorney, Eric Puente, provided evidence that Garza had “derived,” or acquired, U.S. citizenship when his mother naturalized in 1984. ICE has no civil authority to place immigration detainers on U.S. citizens.

“On Dec. 5, while still in the custody of Dallas County Jail, Mr. Garza’s attorney provided additional documentation to ICE officers which indicated that Mr. Garza had derived U.S. citizenship,” agency spokesman Carl Rusnok said in a statement. “Based on this information, ICE dropped its detainer the same day.”

Garza and six other former Dallas County inmates filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on December 18 against Dallas County and Sheriff Lupe Valdez, alleging that Dallas County violated their constitutional rights by refusing to release them on bond because they had immigration detainers. Puente said the county’s action amounted to illegal pretrial detention.

“What Dallas County does is they go much further than what ICE is asking them to do,” Puente said. “They use the ICE detainer as an instrument to deny the constitutional right to bail. They say, ‘because you have an ICE detainer, you just can’t pay bail. You cannot get out, period, until your case is disposed of.’”

Rusnok said ICE asked Dallas County to notify its agents 48 hours before Garza was going to be released — not to hold Garza beyond when he would have otherwise been let go.

Melinda Urbina, a spokeswoman at the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, declined to comment on Garza’s case because of the ongoing lawsuit. But she said that if ICE asks the county to hold an inmate for an extra 48 hours, the additional time typically does not begin until after the prisoner’s county charges are resolved.

“We follow what [ICE asks] us to do,” she said.

Garza’s case is the latest challenging Dallas County’s cooperation with immigration officials. In October, Valdez said she would decide case-by-case whether to honor ICE detainers for certain offenses. The policy change sparked the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott, who characterized Valdez’s new approach in a public letter as lenient and “a serious danger to Texans.” The same day as Abbott’s letter, 16 former Dallas County inmates who had been held on detainers filed a similar federal civil rights lawsuit against the county. Puente is also one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in that case.

But Texas law enforcement agencies rarely refuse a detainer. Between January 2014 and September 2015, more than 18,000 immigration detainers were declined by law enforcement agencies across the United States, but only 146 were declined by Texas law enforcement, according to an analysis of federal immigration detainers by The Texas Tribune.

Garza’s case highlights the complicated nature of determining U.S. citizenship, and many U.S. citizens have wound up with detainers placed on them in recent years. From fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2012, ICE issued at least 834 detainers against U.S. citizens, including 83 in Texas and seven in Dallas County Jail, according to TRAC’s Immigration Project, a research project at Syracuse University that compiles immigration data obtained from ICE.

To prove that Garza is a U.S. citizen, Puente gave ICE a 1999 decision from a Dallas immigration judge halting his removal proceedings initiated after Garza was sentenced to five years of deferred probation in 1996 stemming from an aggravated assault charge, an offense that often leads to deportation for non-citizens. After Garza successfully completed probation, the charge was dismissed in 2001, according to the Dallas County District Clerk’s Office. To demonstrate his U.S. citizenship, Garza had to show the judge his birth certificate, his parents’ divorce certificate and his mother’s certificate of naturalization. Puente said ICE should have had the case on file.

“If [ICE] would have paid attention to him, they would have found out, as I did, that he is a U.S. citizen,” said Puente. “ICE has the documents to prove so. I supplied those documents to the ICE officers who then lifted and canceled his ICE detainer. But I used their own records to show that.”

Garza acquired U.S. citizenship under a since-repealed provision of federal law allowing a child born outside of the United States to automatically acquire U.S. citizenship if both parents — or in the case of divorce, the parent with custody — became a naturalized citizen before the child turned 18.

Garza was born in 1969 in Monterrey, Mexico. When he was three years old, Garza and his parents entered the United States legally through Laredo. His parents divorced in 1982 and Garza’s mother retained custody of him. In 1984, when Garza was 14 years old, his mother became a U.S. citizen, which also made Garza a U.S. citizen. He has always held a legal immigration status in the U.S.

Garza, a father of two boys, ages 9 and 16, said he feared he was really going to be deported and the extra time in prison placed a financial and emotional burden on him. 

He said prison and immigration officials would not listen to him as he repeatedly told them he was a U.S. citizen. While in jail, Garza got behind on his bills, had to take out loans, paid $2,000 to retrieve his impounded vehicle and missed doctors appointments related to the open-heart surgery he had undergone several months before his arrest.

“I lost a lot,” he said. “[I lost] my job, my car, I’m behind on my bills, almost lost my house. I lost a lot of things emotionally.”

This story is part of The Texas Tribune’s yearlong Bordering on Insecurity project.