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This U.S. Citizen Got Really, Really Screwed By ICE

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Davino Watson got screwed. The court system said as much, after he was improperly detained by immigration officials for more than three years, despite being an American citizen. Then he got screwed even more when the same court said he can’t be compensated for his trouble.

See, Watson was arrested for a drug offense back in 2007. He served his time and got out in 2008, at which point he was detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, which is normal when an undocumented immigrant gets in trouble with the law.

But Davino Watson is an American citizen. His father moved to the U.S. from Jamaica, and the two of them became naturalized citizens in 2002, when Davino was 17. He told this to ICE officials and asked them to call his family to verify. They didn’t. Instead, they looked up Watson’s father, Hopeton Ulando Watson, who was living in New York. At least, that’s what they meant to do. Instead, they looked up Hopeton Livingston Watson, who was not a citizen and was living in Connecticut. Based on that, they believed that Davino wasn’t a citizen either, and detained him in order to deport him, ignoring his insistence that they got it wrong.

After being held for roughly three and a half years, Davino was released in Alabama, even though he’s from New York. He had no money, and wasn’t even told why he was released, according to court documents. Of course, deportation proceedings didn’t even end until more than a year later, while officials debated whether the fact that Watson’ parents were unmarried made a difference for his citizenship status (it didn’t). Finally, it was determined that Watson was, indeed, a citizen.

Naturally, he sued over the ordeal he needlessly suffered through, and a District Court awarded him a measly $82,500, which he appealed. The Second Circuit said in their decision, “It is arresting and disturbing that an American citizen was detained for years in immigration proceedings while facing deportation,” and that “the agents did not competently pursue the leads” regarding Watson’s citizenship.

One might think that based on those words, Watson would get a huge windfall, right? Wrong. Instead, the court said Watson can’t get any money because he didn’t sue within the two-year statute of limitations for false imprisonment claims.

This is where we have to dive into the weeds a little bit, and by the time we get out, we’ll all feel a little dirty. The District Court had allowed Watson’s lawsuit, stating that the clock didn’t start ticking on the statute of limitations until after Watson finally received his certificate of citizenship, which was on November 26, 2013. By then, he had already filed an administrative claim with the Department of Homeland Security, and he filed his lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York on October 31, 2014, after the administrative claim failed, but still within two years of getting proof of citizenship.

The Second Circuit, on the other hand, said that false imprisonment only refers to “detention without legal process,” and that once legal process begins, it’s no longer false imprisonment. Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote in his opinion that Watson was clearly already being held “pursuant to legal process” by the time an immigration judge ordered Watson’s removal, which was back in 2008.

Do you feel as dirty as I do? Watson was unjustly detained in the first place, and then improperly held for years. But because the wrong decisions that kept him in custody were done in a legal process, he has no recourse, according to Judge Jacobs.

Now, I’m normally one to say that the law is the law, no matter if the outcome feels good or not (even when that opinion is unpopular), but this goes far beyond that. The law even allows for statutes of limitations to be put on hold during insane situations like this, but according to Judge Jacobs, this just isn’t insane enough. He acknowledges that the statute of limitations can toll (be put on hold) if a person has been diligently pursuing their rights and extraordinary circumstances stood in the way. Jacobs says that Watson not being aware of his legal options at the time doesn’t qualify as “extraordinary,” so he’s out of luck.

This is bullshit.

Statutes of limitations are meant to make sure people take action in a timely fashion. It’s not like Watson was sitting back doing nothing for years and then suddenly thought, “Hey! I’ve been in detention for years, what’s up with that?” He was fighting tooth and nail the only way he knew how from the beginning. He told ICE officials he was a citizen. He told them who to call to verify this. They didn’t do it. He told a judge, who ignored him. He pretty much told anyone who would listen, except no one would listen.

Watson now has his freedom because everyone is admitting that they screwed up royally, but words of blame in a court decision don’t pay the bills, and they sure don’t begin to compensate an American citizen for years of his life taken away by the very country he legally moved to.

As for Judge Jacobs, well, in today’s political/judicial climate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the Supreme Court in the near future.

Watson decision by LawNewz on Scribd

[Image via screengrab]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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