By Marisa Taylor | McClatchy Newspapers
Posted on Thursday, January 24, 2008
Ariz. — Thomas Warziniack was born in Minnesota and grew up in Georgia,
but immigration authorities pronounced him an illegal immigrant from
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has held
Warziniack for weeks in an Arizona detention facility with the aim of
deporting him to a country he's never seen. His jailers shrugged off
Warziniack's claims that he was an American citizen, even though they
could have retrieved his Minnesota birth certificate in minutes and
even though a Colorado court had concluded that he was a U.S. citizen a
year before it shipped him to Arizona.
On Thursday, Warziniack
finally became a free man. Immigration officials released him after his
family, who learned about his predicament from McClatchy, produced a
birth certificate and after a U.S. senator demanded his release.
immigration agents told me they never make mistakes," Warziniack said
in an earlier phone interview from jail. "All I know is that somebody
dropped the ball."
The story of how immigration
officials decided that a small-town drifter with a Southern accent was
an illegal Russian immigrant illustrates how the federal government
mistakenly detains and sometimes deports American citizens.
citizens who are mistakenly jailed by immigration authorities can get
caught up in a nightmarish bureaucratic tangle in which they're simply
An unpublished study by the Vera Institute of
Justice, a New York nonprofit organization, in 2006 identified 125
people in immigration detention centers across the nation who
immigration lawyers believed had valid U.S. citizenship claims.
initially focused on six facilities where most of the cases surfaced.
The organization later broadened its analysis to 12 sites and plans to
track the outcome of all cases involving citizens.
the lead researcher, said she thinks that many more American citizens
probably are being erroneously detained or deported every year because
her assessment looked at only a small number of those in custody. Each
year, about 280,000 people are held on immigration violations at 15
federal detention centers and more than 400 state and local contract
Unlike suspects charged in criminal courts, detainees accused of immigration violations don't have a right to an attorney,
and three-quarters of them represent themselves. Less affluent or
resourceful U.S. citizens who are detained must try to maneuver on
their own through a complicated system.
"It becomes your word
against the government's, even when you know and insist that you're a
U.S. citizen," Siulc said. "Your word doesn't always count, and the
government doesn't always investigate fully."
ICE, the federal agency that oversees deportations, maintain that such
cases are isolated because agents are required to obtain sufficient
evidence that someone is an illegal immigrant before making an arrest. However, they don't track the number of U.S. citizens who are detained or deported.
"We don't want to detain or deport U.S. citizens," said Ernestine Fobbs, an ICE spokeswoman. "It's just not something we do."
immigration advocates agree that the agents generally release detainees
before deportation in clear-cut cases, they said that ICE sometimes
ignores valid assertions of citizenship in the rush to ship out more
Proving citizenship is especially
difficult for the poor, mentally ill, disabled or anyone who has
trouble getting a copy of his or her birth certificate while behind
Pedro Guzman, a mentally disabled U.S. citizen who was
born in Los Angeles, was serving a 120-day sentence for trespassing
last year when he was shipped off to Mexico. Guzman was found three
months later trying to return home. Although federal government
attorneys have acknowledged that Guzman was a citizen, ICE spokeswoman
Virginia Kice said Thursday that her agency still questions the
validity of his birth certificate.
Last March, ICE agents in
San Francisco detained Kebin Reyes, a 6-year-old boy who was born in
the U.S., for 10 hours after his father was picked up in a sweep. His
father says he wasn't permitted to call relatives who could care for
his son, although ICE denies turning down the request.
number of U.S. citizens who are swept up in the immigration system is a
small fraction of the number of illegal immigrants who are deported, but in the last several years immigration lawyers report seeing more detainees who turn out to be U.S. citizens.
attorneys said the chances of mistakes are growing as immigration
agents step up sweeps in the country and state and local prisons with
less experience in immigration matters screen more criminals on behalf
ICE's Fobbs said agents move as quickly as
possible to check stories of people who claim they're American
citizens. But she said that many of the cases involve complex legal
arguments, such as whether U.S. citizenship is derived from parents,
which an immigration judge has to sort out.
"We have to be careful we don't release the wrong person," she said.
In Warziniack's case, ICE officials appear to have been oblivious to signs that they'd made a serious mistake.
he was arrested in Colorado on a minor drug charge, Warziniack told
probation officials there wild stories about being shot seven times,
stabbed twice and bombed four times as a Russian army colonel in
Afghanistan, according to court records. He also insisted that he swam
ashore to America from a Soviet submarine.
were skeptical. Not only did his story seem preposterous, but the
longtime heroin addict also had a Southern accent and didn't speak
Colorado court officials quickly determined his true
identity in a national crime database: He was a Minnesota-born man who
grew up in Georgia. Before Warziniack was sentenced to prison on the
drug charge, his probation officer surmised in a report that he could
be mentally ill.
Although it took only minutes for McClatchy
to confirm with Minnesota officials that a birth certificate under
Warziniack's name and birth date was on file, Colorado prison officials
notified federal authorities that Warziniack was a foreign-born
McClatchy also was able to track down Warziniack's
three half-sisters. Even though they hadn't seen him in almost 20
years, his sisters were willing to vouch for him.
One of them,
Missy Dolle, called the detention center repeatedly, until officials
there stopped returning her calls. Her brother's attorney told her that
a detainee in Warziniack's situation often has to wait weeks for
results, even if he or she gets a copy of a U.S. birth certificate.
meanwhile, waited impatiently for an opportunity to prove his case.
After he contacted the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a
group that provides legal advice to immigrants, a local attorney
recently agreed to represent him for free.
Dolle and her
husband, Keith, a retired sheriff's deputy in Mecklenburg County, N.C.,
flew to Arizona from their Charlotte home to attend her brother's
hearing before an immigration judge.
Before she left, she
e-mailed Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. After someone from his office
contacted ICE, immigration officials promised to release Warziniack if
they got a birth certificate.
After scrambling to get a power
of attorney to obtain their brother's birth certificate, the sisters
succeeded in getting a copy the day before the hearing.
Thursday, however, government lawyers told an immigration judge during
a deportation hearing that they needed a week to verify the
authenticity of Warziniack's birth record. The judge delayed his ruling.
"I still can't believe this is happening in America," Dolle said.
Warziniack began to weep when he saw his sister. "They still don't believe me," he said.
that day, however, ICE officials changed their minds and said that he
could be released this week. They said they were able to confirm his
birth certificate, but they didn't acknowledge any problem with the
handling of the case.
The officials blamed conflicting information for the mix-up.
"The burden of proof is on the individual to show they're legally entitled to be in the United States," said ICE spokeswoman Kice.
40, told McClatchy that he has no memory of telling anyone he was
Russian. Instead, he recalled the shock of withdrawing from his heroin
addiction after 18 years of drug abuse.
a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections, suspects that
prison officials were relying on information that Warziniack gave when
he was first taken into custody because they never received the
Colorado court documents concluding that he was a U.S. citizen.
Even now, the prison records inaccurately show his current location as "the Soviet Union."
the end, Sanguinetti said, ICE is responsible for making sure that it
detains and deports the correct person. Her prisons flag hundreds of
prisoners a month as foreign-born, but can't possibly verify the
information, she said.
"Could it happen again? Sure,"
Sanguinetti said. "But we would hope that ICE during their
investigative process would discover the truth."
Rosenbloom, an attorney at the Center for Human Rights and
International Justice at Boston College who's identified at least seven
U.S. citizens whom ICE has mistakenly deported since 2000, believes
that the agency should set up a more formal way of handling detainees
when they appear to have valid claims of U.S. citizenship. At the very
least, she said, ICE could release people such as Warziniack on bond
while waiting for immigration judges to hear the cases.
like finding innocent people on death row," Rosenbloom said. "There may
be only a small number of cases, but when you find them you want to do
everything in your power to make sure they get out."
(Researcher Tish Wells contributed.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008