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How can a U.S. citizen be detained by immigration officials?

It might seem impossible that U.S. citizens, including people born in this country, could be detained by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP). However, it's happened at airports and border crossings in the U.S. and even aboard a domestic flight.

One case that made headlines this summer involved an 18-year-old young man, born in the U.S., who was held for three weeks by ICE after he was stopped at a border checkpoint some 100 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. ICE and CBP claimed that the teen gave "conflicting reports regarding status of citizenship." His attorney says he presented, among other documents, a copy of his birth certificate showing that he was born in this country.

The problem of U.S. citizens being wrongly held in detention centers or local jails didn't begin with the present administration. According to an analysis by National Public Radio (NPR), from 2007 through 2015, over 1,500 U.S. citizens were detained by or at the direction of immigration agencies.

As one law professor explains, "If you're a citizen, ICE has no reason to detain you." She adds, however, "Most of us don't carry any proof of our citizenship. We don't walk around with our passport." Law enforcement and immigration officers can legally detain a person who's unable to prove their U.S. citizenship status.

The attorney notes that few immigration stops are random. Those stopped usually have some sort of criminal history (often something relatively minor like a DUI) or an outstanding warrant.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recommends that anyone who's stopped by ICE, CBP or other authorities, whether they're a citizen or a legal resident, do the following:

  • Ask if you are free to go. If you aren't suspected of a crime and they have no arrest warrant, they can't hold you.
  • Don't lie about your immigration or citizenship status or present fraudulent documents.
  • Don't answer questions (other than to provide your citizenship or immigration status).
  • Don't sign any documents. You could be waiving your right to have a deportation hearing without realizing it.
  • Ask for an attorney. If you are a citizen, you have the right to be assigned a public defender. However, even if you aren't, you have the right to call an attorney.

If a loved one has been wrongfully detained for alleged immigration violations, get them an experienced immigration attorney as soon as possible.

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