Legal Citizens Nabbed By ICE

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 9:44 AM EDT

The Center for Investigative Reporting on Rennison Vern Castillo, a U.S. citizen and veteran held for months after immigration officials mistakenly took him for an undocumented immigrant:

After domestic disputes with a girlfriend, he was convicted in 2005 of felony harassment and violating a no-contact order, and was sent to Pierce County Jail in Washington state for eight months. He was in a holding area with inmates about to be released when a corrections officer held him back.

Castillo was handcuffed and whisked off in a van to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. A federal officer said records showed he was an illegal immigrant.

[Snip]

Castillo went before an immigration judge, who appeared via video conference, a common procedure in the crowded immigration court system. Again, he claimed citizenship. The judge didn't believe him. He was ordered deported on Jan. 24, 2006.

ICE says cases like Castillo's are extremely rare; human rights organizations say otherwise. But the real value of a story like Castillo's lies in the picture it paints of how clumsy, disorganized and overburdened our immigration courts can be—just one indication of the need for immigration reform. A database of all legal citizens and legal aliens doesn't exist, and those suspected of being an undocumented immigrant don't have the right to an attorney during their hurried hearings.

This week, the Obama administration outlined, albeit broadly, its proposal for immigration reform, which would include a national database to check the immigration status of workers. That would, at the very least, be a start; cases like Castillo's would probably diminish completely if such a database were created. But it's only one of the problems of our broken immigration system.

Obama says he wants to take on the issue this year, a move one anti-immigration advocate said would be "politically disastrous." But the question of what to do with our undocumented immigrants—a bloc whose population shrank last year but still numbers 12 million people—is so contentious I doubt there's ever a good time to tackle it. The looming census complicates the issue even further: Parts of the right have already accused Obama of wanting to pass immigration reform before 2010 to create new Democrat-friendly districts with heavy Latino populations. They forget, though, that Latinos aren't a Democratic monolith.