WASHINGTON — A top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official acknowledged Wednesday that his agency has mistakenly detained U.S. citizens as illegal immigrants, but he denied that his agency has widespread problems with deporting the wrong people.
Gary Mead, ICE's deputy director of detention and removal operations, testified during a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing that U.S. citizens have been detained on "extremely" rare occasions, but he blamed the mix-ups on conflicting information from the detainees.
Nonetheless, Mead said his agency is reviewing its handling of people who claim to be U.S. citizens "to determine if even greater safeguards can be put in place."
The testimony before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law came after immigration advocates told McClatchy that they'd seen a small but growing number of cases of U.S. citizens who've been mistakenly detained and sometimes deported by ICE. They accuse agents of ignoring valid assertions of citizenship in the rush to deport more illegal immigrants.
Unlike suspects charged in criminal courts, detainees accused of immigration violations don't have a right to an attorney, and three-quarters of them represent themselves.
Last month, Thomas Warziniack, a U.S. citizen who was born in Minnesota and grew up in Georgia, was mistakenly detained for weeks in an Arizona immigration facility and told that he was going to be deported to Russia.
Warziniack, 40, was released after his family, who learned about his predicament from a McClatchy reporter, produced his birth certificate.
In another high-profile example, ICE agents in California mistakenly deported Pedro Guzman, a mentally disabled U.S. citizen, to Mexico. Guzman was found months later when he tried to return to the United States.
Mead contended that both Warziniack and Guzman said they were illegal immigrants, and he said ICE agents have to be careful not to release the wrong people. Guzman and Warziniack had been serving time for minor offenses when their jailers turned them over to immigration authorities.
Although Mead said that Guzman is the only U.S. citizen he knows who's been deported erroneously, immigration lawyers have said they've found at least seven others. In the past four years, ICE agents have detained more than 1 million people.
House committee members also heard stories of ICE agents interrogating or detaining U.S. citizens in their homes, at their workplaces and on the street.
Marie Justeen Mancha, a 17-year-old born in Texas, said ICE agents raided her family's home in Georgia in 2006 while her mother was running an errand. Her mother is also a U.S. citizen.
"I started to hear the words, 'Police! Illegals!'" she recalled. "I walked around the corner from the hallway and saw a tall man reach toward his gun and look straight at me."
Mancha said the agents left after grilling her about her citizenship.
"I carry that fear with me every day, wondering when they'll come back," she said.
Mancha is one of five U.S. citizens named in a pending lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center that alleges wrongful interrogations or detentions by ICE in Southeast Georgia.
Rep. Steven King, R-Iowa, the ranking minority member of the committee, described the cases as isolated and urged the agency not to be distracted from detaining and deporting illegal immigrants.
"ICE does not aim to harass and detain U.S. citizens," he said.
But Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the committee, said that after hearing such stories, she feared an "overzealous government is interrogating, detaining and deporting its own citizens."
Nancy Morawetz, who runs an immigration rights clinic at New York University, said getting proof of citizenship is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for detainees, especially when they're shipped to a facility far from home.
In 2006, the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit organization, identified 125 people in immigration detention centers who immigration lawyers believed had valid U.S. citizenship claims.
"As a country we do not have a national identity card," Morawetz said in an interview. "People don't walk around with a 'C' on their forehead that says they're a U.S. citizen."