A new investigation published Friday by the Los Angeles Times found that since 2012, 1,480 people have been arrested—and later released—from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after it was revealed they were actually American citizens. Cases of mistaken identity might just be a data point for ICE, but as the Times piece reveals, they upend people’s lives in ways that range from distressing to outright cruel.
One man, Davino Watson, was held in ICE custody for three-and-a-half years because agents had identified the wrong person as his father. According to the newspaper, even after the agency realized its error, federal lawyers “seized on a new U.S. reading of Jamaican law to argue Watson should be deported because his father was not his legal guardian when they left the island nation.” It was only after Watson’s appeal made it to U.S. District Court that he was eventually freed.
“You feel like your rights are stripped from you. You feel hopeless. It was very hard to understand. I spent many nights crying,” Watson told the Times.
While Watson’s experience was among the more dramatic cases, other Americans lost their jobs after being wrongfully arrested and suffered panic attacks because they were abruptly taken into custody. As Sergio Carrillo, a man who was wrongfully held in ICE custody for days put it to the Times, “For ICE, it’s like, ‘Oops, we made a mistake.’ But for me on the other end, it tears up your life.”
These arrests have repeatedly taken place because of incomplete government records, bad data, and “lax investigations,” the paper reported. In a statement to Splinter, the agency said that investigating citizenship claims is a complex process that involves paper and digital records along with in-person interviews, and when they run across incorrect or outdated information, they take steps to correct it.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes very seriously any and all assertions that an individual detained in its custody may be a U.S. citizen,” the ICE statement also said.
These mistaken arrests are not limited to Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House. According to the Times, the largest number of these arrests happened in 2012 and 2013, under Barack Obama’s administration.
They’re also just one more way that ICE systematically terrorizes immigrant communities in this country. The agency’s history might be short, but time and time again we are reminded how brutal it can be.
Update, 3:32 pm: This post has been updated to include a statement from ICE.