SEATTLE - The U.S. government has agreed to pay $400,000 to an American citizen and Army veteran from Washington state who was locked up for seven months while immigration officials wrongly tried to deport him.
Rennison Castillo was transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in 2005 when he finished serving a jail sentence for violating a protection order and harassment. The native of Belize explained repeatedly that he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998 while serving in the Army, but neither Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials nor an immigration judge believed him. He was finally released after the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Seattle attorneys took up his case on appeal.
"ICE officers did not listen to me when I told them repeatedly that I was a U.S. citizen and had served in the Army at Fort Lewis," he said in a statement released Thursday. "They were disrespectful and told me that I would say anything to get out of detention."
The government gave him a letter of apology written by the assistant U.S. attorney in Tacoma who handled the case.
"I believe that none of my clients ... would ever have wanted to, or knowingly would have, detained a veteran and a United States citizen," Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Lynch wrote. "We very much regret that you were detained."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the agency now vets the citizenship claims of detainees much more closely, and if such claims appear credible, detainees are released.
In 2009, The Associated Press documented cases of 55 U.S. citizens wrongly detained by U.S. immigration officials in the past decade, including Castillo. Immigration lawyers believe there were hundreds more.
"Like other immigration detainees faced with deportation, Mr. Castillo was not entitled to a court-appointed attorney, and he could not afford to hire a private attorney," the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said in a written statement.
In late 2009, a federal judge denied the government's motion to dismiss Castillo's lawsuit, which he filed in 2008.
Castillo, 33, of Lakewood, came to the United States at age 6 and later became a permanent lawful resident. He was sworn in as a citizen during his seven-year stint in the Army, which ended with his honorable discharge in 2003.
Castillo's case was complicated by the fact that his immigration files listed two names and misspelled versions of his first and last name. He also didn't have immediately family in the area to call for help.