“We often think that citizenship is a real cut-and-dried determination,” said UCSB law and society professor Jacqueline Stevens in a recent interview on KCLU’s Crosstalk, “but there are a lot of areas where the question is a little bit more gray.”

According to Stevens, who published a study in the June 23 issue of The Nation, immigration laws are often so convoluted that U.S. citizens and legal residents are being deported to Mexico and other countries on a regular basis. Stevens has studied a large number of cases filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by the ACLU and other civil rights groups on behalf of legal residents and citizens who were wrongfully detained or deported. “Detaining and deporting U.S. citizens amounts to false imprisonment, which is a felony,” said Stevens.

A man named Robert, who has an Hispanic last name, served nearly two years in prison, was deported, got caught re-entering, was sentenced to three years in prison, served more time, and then was finally sent to an immigration judge. He was later informed that he had been a citizen since 1983.

As a result of these numerous lawsuits, ICE has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and damages paid to claimants. Steven’s article quotes Kara Hartzler, an attorney at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP), as saying, “The deportation of U.S. citizens is not happening monthly, or weekly, but every day.”

Stevens attributes this phenomenon to the confusing nature of immigration laws but also to racial profiling. According to her findings, “The profiling of Mexican-Americans is based largely on last name and not appearance.” Among several cases, she cites the example of Robert, a U.S. citizen who served an 18-month sentence in jail before being transferred to an ICE detention center for over a year and eventually being deported. Stevens says Robert is “phenotypically ‘white'” but his Hispanic surname caused immigration officials to doubt his citizenship and deport him. After returning to the U.S. and being deported a second time, Robert was caught trying to enter the country illegally. He was convicted of impersonating a U.S. citizen and sentenced to three years in prison, which he served until an immigration judge allowed him to present his case to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There, he was informed that he had been a citizen since 1983.

In addition to the strain on tax dollars and ICE resources, these mistaken deportations cause huge problems for those unfortunate citizens who are detained. “These people have lives and families and jobs, and close attachments to where they live, that they’re missing out on while they’re being held in detention,” said Stevens.

ICE has no jurisdiction over U.S. citizens and claims that instances of citizens being deported are rare. But in reality, countered Stevens, “ICE detains thousands of people who were born in the United States and puts the burden of proving citizenship on them. Often they are people who have limited communications skills and even more limited knowledge about their rights.”

Citizenship can often be difficult to prove or establish, especially in the case of foreign-born citizens as different laws apply to different birth years. Stevens explained, “In some cases, immigration judges simply ignore the law and ignore court precedent,” issuing determinations of deportation to individuals who qualify as citizens but do not appear to be without investigation.

“The number of people held in detention centers around the country,” Stevens reported in her radio interview, “are between twenty-two and thirty thousand.” With nationwide raids on factories and homes, it can only mean more mistaken deportations and detentions, not only for laborers but also for citizens from all walks of life.

Recent memory will attest to the 2007 incident involving a predawn raid on an apartment in Isla Vista in which a UCSB student of Korean descent was arrested while ICE agents were actually looking question her roommate, an Iranian graduate student, about her legal status. Stevens commented on the incident by saying, “The aggressive and unlawful tactics of ICE are inevitably going to lead to the harassment and false imprisonment of residents and U.S. citizens who are lawfully in this country.”


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