Saturday, January 26, 2008

Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) Attempts To Deport A Born American Citizen, Thomas Warziniack, From The United States

According to information I presented in my most recent post about Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Bauer's proposed immigration ordinance, we have an estimated 2,300 illegal immigrants in Anchorage alone, and possibly up to 12,000 statewide.

Yet Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently attempted to deport a born American citizen from the United States. Forty-year-old Thomas Warziniack was born in Minnesota and grew up in Georgia, but immigration authorities pronounced him an illegal immigrant from Russia. Full story published January 24th, 2008 on the McClatchyDC website.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement held Warziniack for weeks in an Arizona detention facility with the aim of deporting him to a country he's never seen. His jailers shrugged off Warziniack's claims that he was an American citizen, even though they could have retrieved his Minnesota birth certificate in minutes and even though a Colorado court had concluded that he was a U.S. citizen a year before it shipped him to Arizona.

On Thursday January 24th, Warziniack finally became a free man. Immigration officials released him after his family, who learned about his predicament from McClatchy, produced a birth certificate and after a U.S. Senator demanded his release.

Warziniak actually set himself up for this in the first place. After he was arrested in Colorado on a minor drug charge, Warziniack told probation officials there improbable stories about being shot seven times, stabbed twice and bombed four times as a Russian army colonel in Afghanistan, according to court records. He also insisted that he swam ashore to America from a Soviet submarine. [Ed. Note: After the ordeal was finished, Warziniack claimed he didn't remember telling anyone that he was Russian, and stated he was undergoing withdrawal from an 18-year heroin addiction.]

Colorado court officials were skeptical. Not only did his story seem preposterous, but the longtime heroin addict also had a Southern accent and didn't speak Russian. Upon investigation, they quickly determined that he was a Minnesota-born man who grew up in Georgia. Before Warziniack was sentenced to prison on the drug charge, his probation officer surmised in a report that he could be mentally ill. Nevertheless, even though Minnesota had a birth certificate under Warziniack's name and birth date on file, Colorado prison officials still notified federal authorities that Warziniack was a foreign-born prisoner, because they never received a copy of Warziniack's birth certificate. The Feds then picked him up and transported him to the detention center in Arizona.

Of course, Warziniack was in no position to obtain a copy of his birth certificate while behind bars. Fortunately, he had three half-sisters who were willing to vouch for him, even though they hadn't seen him in almost 20 years.

One of them, Missy Dolle, called the detention center repeatedly, until officials there stopped returning her calls. Her brother's attorney, who he had obtained pro bono through the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, told her that a detainee in Warziniack's situation often has to wait weeks for results, even if he or she gets a copy of a U.S. birth certificate.

Dolle and her husband, Keith, a retired sheriff's deputy in Mecklenburg County, N.C., flew to Arizona from their Charlotte home to attend her brother's hearing before an immigration judge. Before she left, she e-mailed Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. After someone from his office contacted ICE, immigration officials promised to release Warziniack if they got a birth certificate. After obtaining a power of attorney to get their brother's birth certificate, the sisters succeeded in getting a copy the day before the hearing. Problem finally solved, right?

Wrong. At the deportation hearing, government lawyers suddenly threw another curve, telling the immigration judge that they needed a week to verify the authenticity of Warziniack's birth record. The judge delayed his ruling. But later that same day, ICE officials changed their minds and agreed to his release. They said they were able to confirm his birth certificate, but they didn't acknowledge any problem with the handling of the case.

While such snafus are uncommon, they do occur. An unpublished 2006 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit organization, identified 125 people in immigration detention centers across the nation who immigration lawyers believed had valid U.S. citizenship claims. In addition, the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College has identified at least seven U.S. citizens whom ICE has mistakenly deported since 2000. And considering that each year, about 280,000 people are held on immigration violations at 15 federal detention centers and more than 400 state and local contract facilities nationwide, the possibility clearly exists that there could be more.

Two such cases came to public notice. Pedro Guzman, a mentally disabled U.S. citizen who was born in Los Angeles, was serving a 120-day sentence for trespassing last year when he was shipped off to Mexico. Guzman was found three months later trying to return home. Although federal government attorneys have acknowledged that Guzman was a citizen, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Thursday that her agency still questions the validity of his birth certificate. [Ed. Note: Then either prove that it was invalid, or else STFU and drop the issue. It's patently unfair to keep a citizen in a state of limbo.]

And in March 2007, ICE agents in San Francisco detained Kebin Reyes, a 6-year-old boy who was born in the U.S., for 10 hours after his father was picked up in a sweep. His father says he wasn't permitted to call relatives who could care for his son, although ICE denies turning down the request.

One of the difficulties is that ordinary constitutional protections are severely curtailed. Unlike suspects charged in criminal courts, detainees accused of immigration violations don't have a right to an attorney, and three-quarters of them represent themselves. Less affluent or resourceful U.S. citizens who are detained must try to maneuver on their own through a complicated system. It becomes the detainee's word against the government's, and because immigration has become such a hot political football, immigration authorities have a greater incentive to make cases rather than investigate fully. And proving citizenship can be even more difficult for the poor, mentally ill, disabled or anyone who has trouble getting a copy of a birth certificate while behind bars.

ICE officials maintain that such cases are isolated because agents are required to obtain sufficient evidence that someone is an illegal immigrant before making an arrest. However, they don't track the number of U.S. citizens who are detained or deported. "We don't want to detain or deport U.S. citizens," said Ernestine Fobbs, an ICE spokeswoman. "It's just not something we do."

But immigration attorneys said the chances of mistakes are growing as immigration agents step up sweeps in the country and state and local prisons with less experience in immigration matters screen more criminals on behalf of ICE. In addition, as more state and local cops assume immigration-screening duties, this could also be the source of mistakes. Localities who charge their police with field immigration screening, such as what Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Bauer wants to do, need to ensure that local police are thoroughly trained. Supporters of Bauer's ordinance recognize this problem and do NOT advocate that we just immediately turn the Anchorage Police Department loose without the requisite training.

Commentary: The biggest problem here is the process. Virtually no one involved wanted to take their fair share of ownership of the process. Too many people simply wanted to limit themselves to their official fiefdoms and not take the initiative to assure enough overlap to catch the case when it fell through the cracks.

Another problem is that bureaucracies are too infested with careerism. Protecting the career becomes more important than doing the job completely. As a result, bureaucracies become much more oriented towards counting beans and making cases rather than exoneration. Exoneration implies error, which can result in internal adminstrative sanctions. Bureaucracies should NOT administer administrative punishment to someone who catches an error and seeks to correct it. Fixing problems is the mission of a bureaucracy.

Ultimately, the real problem was not that a mistake was made, but that the bureaucracies involved were reluctant to correct it. It also appears we should consider extending broader constitutional protection to those who are caught up in the immigration justice system to minimize these mistakes.

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