Wrongfully Detained Citizen Challenges Immigrant Detention Regime

“What’s needed is immigration reform that finally lives up to our heritage as a nation of laws and as a nation of immigrants,” President Obama told Latino leaders last month. “But our current immigration system doesn’t reflect those values.” The president is right — America’s immigration system doesn’t reflect this country’s traditional values, but even as he campaigns as the pro-immigrant candidate, his record-breaking detention and deportation regime rages onward.

President Obama has deported 1.2 million people in his first three years in office — a record head count, even as actual undocumented immigration has plummeted to record lows. What has fueled the administration’s war on undocumented immigrants has been Secure Communities, the program under which data from local jurisdictions are automatically shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If the name or fingerprints match a known undocumented person, ICE issues a hold, requiring the municipality to detain the individual long enough for federal officials to take over custody.

But this system is about to be challenged by a U.S. citizen who claims Secure Communities led to his wrongfully imprisonment. James Makowski agreed to attend boot camp for four months as part of a plea bargain for drug possession. As is standard procedure, Makowski’s fingerprints were submitted to the FBI to verify that he was not wanted for any other crimes, but under Secure Communities, they were relayed to ICE where his name was flagged. Rather than boot camp, he was sent to a maximum security prison in Pontiac, Illinois.

“I pleaded guilty with the understanding that I would only do boot camp. But because the detainer was issued I was disqualified from entering the boot camp,” he told The Chicago Reporter. “I was pretty shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I’m a U.S. citizen.” Makowski was adopted by a U.S. family when he was an infant, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen when he was one year old — the government failed to update his records, and so this former-U.S. Marine ended up in prison.

Makowski’s lawyers contend that the government violated the Privacy Act by sharing personal information between the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security without cause to believe that Makowski was undocumented. “Part of the problem here is that immigration officials never bothered to interview him,” said Geoffrey Vance, Makowski’s attorney added. “If they did they would have known that he was a citizen. They relied on the data and never bothered to check.”

Secure Communities’ indiscriminate prosecution of undocumented immigrants has also been questioned on human rights grounds, as women involved in domestic disputes are often fingerprinted, but never charged with a crime. One domestic violence victim is suing after her 9-11 call resulted in her being placed in deportation proceedings. She fainted when she, rather than her abusive boyfriend, was being arrested. Police took her to the hospital where her doctors found bruises all over her body, signaling she was a clear victim. Nonetheless, in February last year, she was placed in deportation proceedings.

Despite the contrary evidence, the government contends that Secure Communities keeps Americans safe from dangerous criminals. Yet a Chicago Reporter investigation found that just 46 percent of those individuals subject to Secure Communities detention orders were ever convicted, or even charged with the crime for which they were arrested. Another 29 percent were charged with misdemeanors, many of which related to traffic violations.

Anti-immigration groups cheered when President Obama made Secure Communities mandatory for the nation, dramatically expanding the program from the just 14 jurisdictions that President Bush recruited in 2008, but Makowski’s story serves as a warning to those Americans who want such detention and deportation policies. “If my family didn’t have the resources I don’t know where I would be,” he told the Chicago Reporter. “There are plenty of people who don’t have these resources.”