Family and friends of the thousands of immigrants held in detention centers across the country are all too familiar with the prison-like conditions their loved ones endure every day. In Arizona detentions centers like those in Florence and Eloy, people spend months or even years in inhumane conditions waiting for a determination on whether they can return to their families, or be deported. However, in some instances, even U.S. citizens are mistakenly detained, which demonstrates just how broken the immigration system is.
Davino Watson was born in Jamaica, but became a naturalized U.S. citizen over 12 years ago, in 2002. In 2007, Watson pleaded guilty to a drug charge, and served an eight-month sentence. He passed his sentence in a bootcamp style facility for non-violent offenders. After his sentence was up, instead of being released under the terms of his sentence, he was transferred to the immigration detention center. He spent the next 1,273 days in an immigration detention facility despite being a U.S. citizen.
According to U.S. law, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot detain U.S. citizens. When first interviewed by an ICE officer, Watson said he was a citizen, and gave the officer his parents' phone number to verify the information, but the officer did not follow up. Another officer incorrectly reported his parents were not citizens of the U.S. Watson even gave officers a copy of his father's certificate of naturalization, but again, ICE officials did nothing.
An immigration court ruled against him, and it was not until his case reached the U.S. Second Circuit Court of appeals that the decision was reversed in May of 2011. However, it still took until November 2011 before the ICE field office issued a memo recommending his release. Even after Watson was released, ICE did not stop deportation proceedings or give him any proof of legal status for another two years.
Watson has now filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, and a number of immigration officers for unlawful detainment in the Buffalo Detention Center in New York. Watson's story is not unique. Between 2008 and 2012, detainers were placed on 834 U.S. citizens and more than 28,000 permanent residents to place them in detention centers. Most of the detentions last from a few days to a few months, but some have even been deported.
While the government insists that these detention centers are not jails, the isolated locations and regulations make outside communication difficult. Telephone access is limited, as are visiting hours, which complicate access to legal services. Detention centers been at the center of numerous other complaints and lawsuits for these and other reasons, including alleged filthy conditions, malnutrition, and even sexual assault at the hands of guards.
Despite the numerous and continual problems in these immigration detention centers, the U.S. is actually expanding detention operations, and opening newer, even larger centers. A new detention facility opening up in Karnes, Texas will eventually house a staggering 2,400 people, costing taxpayers $300 million a year. The facility will be operated by the for-profit prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the same corporation which runs the Florence and Eloy Detention Center here in Arizona.