NEW YORK (Reuters) - Davino Watson languished in a detention center in Buffalo, New York, for 3-1/2 years awaiting deportation on orders from immigration authorities. The only problem: Watson is an American citizen.
Now the Jamaican-born Watson, released in 2011, is suing the U.S. government and a handful of immigration officers in federal court claiming he was unlawfully detained. He alleges officials ignored his repeated claims that he was naturalized and that he would have been released had there been a more thorough investigation into his background.
Watson’s case is the latest example of U.S. citizens and legal residents suing the government after being ensnared in a system meant to improve immigration enforcement.
About two dozen suits have been filed since the system was put in place in the late 1990s, but Watson’s lawyers say his case involves the longest detention. The others allege unlawful detention periods ranging from a few days to several months.
Under U.S. law, Immigration and Customs Enforcement may issue a so-called “detainer” request to local law enforcement in order to investigate an arrested person’s residence status.
Watson pleaded guilty in 2007 to charges of selling cocaine and served an eight-month sentence in a program for young, non-violent offenders. According to Watson’s lawsuit, filed last week in federal court in Brooklyn, a detainer request triggered his transfer from a New York correctional facility to immigration detention.
A spokesman for ICE declined to comment on the Watson case. ICE says detainers are critical for the government to be able to identify, and deport, criminal aliens being held in federal and local custody.
The detainers have come under fire from local governments and immigration advocates claiming they are costly and can be misapplied, with cases of citizens like Watson or legal residents being transferred to federal detention facilities.
“We are all at risk if this can happen,” said Mark Flessner, one of Watson’s attorneys from the firm Holland and Knight. “If there isn’t a procedure that allows citizens to be immediately released without any kind of due process it just points to the broken system.”
Detainers were mistakenly placed on 834 U.S. citizens and 28,489 permanent residents between 2008 and 2012, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse run out of Syracuse University.
About half the lawsuits brought by citizens against the government have been settled and the rest are pending, said Mark Fleming of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center and co-counsel representing Watson.
More than 250 municipalities have passed ordinances to limit compliance with the federal detainer requests. The New York City Council earlier this month passed a bill mandating local police decline ICE detainer requests unless a federal judge issues a warrant.
Watson moved to the United States as a teenager and says he became a citizen in 2002 after his father was naturalized. His case languished in court before a federal judge appointed lawyers that fought for his release. Watson is suing individual ICE agents and the government for unspecified damages.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Amy Stevens