U.S. Citizen Detained for Several Years Not Eligible for Compensation
23-year-old U.S. Citizen Davino Watson repeated his citizenship status over and over again after being detained, making Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, jail officials and a judge aware it was legal for him to be here. It didn’t make a difference.
Watson hadn’t graduated from high school and he didn’t have an attorney. The court wouldn’t appoint him one. So, all he could do was write a handwritten note to officers and attach his father’s naturalization certificate. Although born in Jamaica, Watson had moved to the United States with his dad in his teens. He was still only 17 when his dad was naturalized, making him, too, a citizen.
Watson was from New York, but nevertheless, was detained as a deportable illegal alien for almost three-and-a-half years after pleaded guilty to selling cocaine. As soon as his sentence was up in May 2008, he was immediately arrested by ICE officials. Eventually, in November 2011, Watson was released into rural Alabama with no explanation and nothing to his name. Deportation proceedings continued.
Once released, Watson filed a complaint and last year, U.S. District Judge Weinstein in his home state awarded him $82,5000 in damages for “regrettable failures of the government”, stating his case is “arcane”.
Watson, now 32, was told by an appeal court on Monday, however, that he is not eligible for any of that money. The court cited that while his case is “disturbing,” the statute of limitations had expired while he was still in custody. The court said that although it was “harsh”, it was bound by the law to deny compensation. “There is no doubt that the government botched the investigation into Watson’s assertion of citizenship, and that as a result a U.S. citizen was held for years in immigration detention and was nearly deported,” the court ruled. “Nonetheless, we must conclude that Watson is not entitled to damages from the government.”
While imprisoned, Watson had not only given officers the names of his father and stepmother, but had provided phone numbers so they could contact them to confirm his citizenship status. They never did. Instead, officers attempted to look up Watson’s father, and found instead an individual with a very similar name who was not a U.S. citizen. Without much research, they had assumed this person was the man in question and marked Watson’s file for deportation.
If Watson had been able to retain an attorney for legal advice, years of hardship could have been avoided, according to the district judge. With a lawyer, “plaintiff probably promptly would have been declared a citizen and released almost immediately after he was arrested, if he were arrested at all,” Weinstein said, adding the “Plaintiff was badly treated by government employees. He deserves a letter of apology from the United States in addition to damages. But the court is not empowered to order this courtesy.”
“ICE did not follow their own procedures of what to do when the detained immigrant makes a claim of U.S. citizenship,” Watson’s attorney, Mark Flessner, explained. “It was crystal clear from the beginning, had DHS done its homework properly, that he has been a U.S. citizen since 2002.”
But, all of this doesn’t take away the fact that the statute of limitations indicates Watson is not eligible for compensation, according to the appeals court. While the majority acknowledged Watson’s case is “extraordinary in a number of unfortunate ways” none of them would allow an exception.