Some Citizens Face Immigration Arrests Because Of Weak Legal Protections, Experts Say

When Jhon Ocampo received a phone call from his stepdaughter one day in 2012 saying immigration officials were at his house, he quickly got on the line and tried to explain to the officers that he was an American citizen.

But the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers told him to come home, arrested him and initiated deportation proceedings against him, claiming he was in the country illegally, Ocampo said. The Springfield resident spent a week in three detention centers across Illinois before a lawyer hired by his mother called ICE, which then confirmed his citizenship and released him in Chicago.

“I feel like I was targeted,” Ocampo, 30, said last week. “They didn’t care what I said. … They didn’t do a lot investigating what I told them.”

Ocampo sued the U.S. government and the two arresting officers in 2014, alleging his constitutional rights to due process were violated. He was awarded $20,000 in damages by a federal judge last month.

Experts estimate that Ocampo is among thousands of people who have become entangled with immigration authorities despite being American citizens. ICE is prohibited by law from arresting and detaining citizens, and according to agency policy, officers should investigate claims of citizenship and avoid taking people into custody if evidence suggests the claims are true.

The Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, which represented Ocampo in his lawsuit, said it has represented 11 other citizens across the country with similar cases since 2010. One pending lawsuit involves a New York man who spent three years in immigration detention despite being a citizen.

By Jeanne Kuang for Chicago Tribune
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