One evening in late June, Francisco Erwin Galicia, his brother, and a group of friends were on their way to a soccer event in Texas when they came across a Border Patrol checkpoint. The officers asked them for their papers. Galicia's brother, Marlon, who was born in Mexico and didn't have legal status, was detained for two days before signing his own deportation, as first reported by the Dallas Morning News. Galicia, an 18-year-old from Dallas, remained in immigration custody for almost a month despite being a United States citizen.
That night, Galicia didn't have his American passport with him, so he showed the Customs and Border Protection officers a Texas ID and a social security card. But the officers were suspicious that the documents were fraudulent. After fingerprinting Galicia, they had found a tourist visa under his name stating Mexico as his birthplace.
According to Galicia's attorney, his undocumented mother had gotten the visa with the false information, thinking that her son wouldn't be able to cross the border to see his family otherwise. As a result of the ordeal, Galicia remained in CBP custody for three weeks, after which he was transferred to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. He was released on Tuesday.
Galicia is by no means an isolated case. U.S. citizens are often mistakenly detained and targeted for deportation. As a 2018 investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed, there have been hundreds of instances in immigration courts where U.S. citizens had to prove they were Americans, sometimes after being detained for months or even years. The investigation also found that, since 2012, ICE has released more than 1,480 people following investigations of citizenship claims. Wrongful arrests were generally based on "incomplete government records, bad data and lax investigations," according to the Times.
In a statement in response to the investigation, Matthew Albence, who was then the head of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations and is now ICE's acting director, guaranteed that the agency took very seriously "any and all assertions that an individual detained in its custody may be a U.S. citizen." Albence added that determining someone's citizenship might require in-depth review of records from local, state, and federal agencies, as well as interviews. He noted that ICE tries to ensure that its systems are "accurate and up-to-date."
But a University of California–Berkeley study identified alarming rates of U.S. citizens being arrested by ICE through the Secure Communities program, which employs local law enforcement agencies' resources for immigration enforcement. Under this program, ICE can, for instance, request that local police and sheriff departments provide information about someone about to be released from custody or hold that person to facilitate their arrest.
Per ICE's policies, officers should find "probable cause" to believe that someone is removable from the U.S. before issuing a detainer. But that isn't always the case. According to recent records from Florida's Miami-Dade County, ICE requested 420 detainers for people listed as U.S. citizens between February of 2017 and February of 2019, later canceling 83 of those based on evidence that they were, in fact, U.S. citizens. Similar patterns were seen in Rhode Island and Texas. "These studies are evidence that, nationwide, ICE has issued detainers against thousands of U.S. citizens over the last decade and a half," an American Civil Liberties Union report from March of this year stated.
In the most extreme cases, U.S. citizens have been held in immigration detention for as long as three years.