In a post last week, I zeroed in on a single aspect of U.S. immigration policy: deportation of immigrants whose most serious offense is coming to America illegally.
Our government is breaking up families and kicking out productive, nonviolent people. This is a disproportionate punishment, I argued, one more discouraging example of our dysfunctional criminal justice system at work.
Today I want to look at a similarly appalling aspect at the intersection of immigration and criminal justice. This time, the story is about Davino Watson, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Jamaica.
Watson was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2008, six years after he gained U.S. citizenship as a teenager. He told ICE agents he was an American citizen and gave them his family’s contact information as proof.
But the agents didn’t call his family. Instead, they mixed up his father, Hopeton Ulando Watson, with one Hopeton Livingston Watson, who had no son named Davino and was not a U.S. citizen, unlike Watson’s dad.
On the basis of that mistake, ICE decided Watson was lying about his citizenship and detained him for three-and-a-half years in preparation for deportation.
“There is no right to a court-appointed attorney in immigration court,” an NPR report on Watson’s ordeal notes, adding, “Watson, who was 23 and didn’t have a high school diploma when he entered ICE custody, didn’t have a lawyer of his own. So he hand-wrote a letter to immigration officers, attaching his father’s naturalization certificate, and kept repeating his status to anyone who would listen.”
In 2011, ICE decided to release Watson, without explanation, in Alabama, a thousand miles from his home in New York City. Adding insult to injury, the agency then kept its deportation proceedings going for another year.
In 2016, with this predicament finally behind him, Watson won $82,500 in damages by taking ICE to court for stealing three years of his life, a pretty reasonable settlement as these things go. (It works out to less than $24,000 for each year he spent behind bars for no good reason.)
But now, another court has ruled Watson can’t have that money, because even though his case is, in the court’s words, “disturbing,” and “the government botched the investigation,” the statute of limitations for false imprisonment is just two years. It ran out while he was still being detained with no access to a lawyer.
So Watson can’t be compensated for the feds detaining him for years without legal counsel because of how long they detained him without legal counsel.
This dramatic and frustrating case is less of an oddity than we might hope, as NPR reports:
Mary Meg McCarthy, the director of the Heartland Alliance National Immigrant Justice Center, says it’s not unusual for a person fighting deportation to spend years in detention.
McCarthy’s group became involved in Watson’s case in October 2011. She says she can’t think of what he could have done, as a detainee asserting his citizenship, to make the process faster.
“The system is very bureaucratic and very, very complicated to navigate,” she tells NPR. “It’s very Kafka-esque.”
“His case lingered on and on because he kept saying, ‘I’m a U.S. citizen and I shouldn’t be deported,'” she says.
The very fact that he kept asserting his status meant more organizations pulled into the process, more layers of bureaucracy, more time, she says. And while a lawyer could have sped up the process, Watson didn’t have one.
As with last week’s post on deportation as a disproportionate punishment, my aim here is not to make a sweeping argument about what our immigration policy should look like.
Rather, it’s simply to say that people — regardless of citizenship — should not have years of their lives sucked away in prison without cause, left to navigate a careless and byzantine federal bureaucracy without even the most basic legal guidance and then stripped of all recompense when the system takes a jackhammer to their lives. This is not how free or fair country works.