Citizen Action

An Army vet goes after the officers who held him at ICE.

Imagine that you, as an American citizen, were plucked from normal life and taken to a detention facility for illegal immigrants. Now imagine that it took seven-and-a-half months for officials to figure out that—as you’d said all along—you were not only a citizen, but had honorably served in the U.S. Army.

Should there be any consequences for the officials who kept you in this Kafkaesque state? That question is at the heart of a case soon to be heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case concerns a Belize native named Rennison Castillo, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 7 and became an American citizen while serving in the Army in 1998. The Lakewood resident is no angel—he has served time for an array of domestic-violence charges. But that doesn’t explain what happened to him in 2005, when he was finishing up an eight-month sentence for violating a protection order.

As SW described in a 2008 story (“Stranger Than ‘Fiction’?”, Aug. 13), Castillo caught the attention of a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official on a routine check for illegal immigrants at the Pierce County jail. Although Castillo says he told the official, Linda Swarski, that he was an American citizen, she didn’t believe him. He was subsequently brought to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where for the next seven-and-a-half months he kept repeating that he was an American citizen. No one believed him there either, until he finally got the documentation to prove his story.

In November 2008, Castillo filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court against Swarski and four other immigration officials who handled his case, charging that they violated his Constitutional rights to freedom and due process. The officers, represented by the U.S. Attorney’s office, claimed that Castillo had not provided sufficient facts to prove that his rights had been violated, and moved to dismiss the case.

Last December, Judge Benjamin Settle ruled that the suit against all the officers barring one (a supervisor) would go on. He noted that the facts were plain: Castillo “was a United States citizen and…was detained by ICE.”

The judge also refused an alternate request by the officers for a summary judgment, based on their claim to immunity because of their role as federal officials. Immunity is only granted to government officials who “acted reasonably under the circumstances,” Settle wrote, and that is a matter of dispute given Castillo’s allegation that the officers neglected to make any “competent” effort to ascertain whether the man in their charge was in fact a citizen.

Last Monday, the officers filed an appeal of that decision with the 9th Circuit. Matt Adams, Castillo’s attorney and legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, says he hopes the court will “send a message to the government: ‘Look, you have to be more cautious. We’re going to hold you accountable.'”