U.S. Citizens Victims of Immigration Enforcement Practices

Immigration enforcement may have become too zealous, with many U.S. citizens being detained for not having proper citizenship identification.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, American citizen Antonio Mantejano, who accidentally shoplifted when he put a bottle of cologne into a shopping bag to buy for his daughter, was detained for four extra nights by Southern California police who suspected he was an illegal immigrant. Montejano, who had no previous criminal record and was carrying his driver’s license, was not released until American Civil Liberties Union lawyers sent his U.S. passport and birth certificate to the station.

A program called Secure Communities, created by the Department of Homeland Security, may largely account for some of these issues. Through the program, fingerprints of arrestees can be run through the DHS immigration database. If an arrested individual is determined to be in the country illegally, law enforcement agencies are allowed to detain the person for up to 48 hours.

A recent study by Northwestern University professor Jacqueline Stevens found that 82 American citizens were held for periods up to a year in two Arizona immigration detention centers between 2006 and 2008. Because law enforcement does not keep track of the number of Americans wrongfully detained each year, figures are hard to come by. A modest estimate, according to Stevens’ study, is 400,000 a year.

Strict immigration laws like Arizona’s HB 56 – which empowered law enforcement officers to ask for proof of citizenship during routine traffic stops – are likely to cause even greater numbers of U.S. citizens to be wrongfully arrested. The federal government pointed to the likelihood of this in seeking to bar the Arizona law from taking effect. The U.S. Department of Justice succeeded in its efforts to block some of the law’s most draconian provisions, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to rule on the law next year.