A U.S. citizen who languished three and a half years in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention and for five years was targeted for deportation is appealing a New York district court ruling that he should only be compensated for less than a month of his unlawful incarceration.
In an appeal filed in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Davino Watson, a U.S. citizen since 2002, argues it was unreasonable for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to rely on a June 2008 executive agency opinion to effectively strip him of his citizenship, detain him, and seek his deportation.
Mr. Watson was arrested by ICE in May 2008 and charged as a deportable national of Jamaica. U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein was deeply troubled by DHS’s “repeated carelessness” and grossly negligent investigation (including relying on the wrong files) that resulted in Mr. Watson’s arrest, detention, and placement in removal proceedings. Mr. Watson, who did not have an attorney until the Second Circuit appointed one in 2010, repeatedly told DHS officials that he was a U.S. citizen, but the officials did nothing to investigate his claims, despite multiple agency policies that require prompt investigation and reporting of the claim up the chain of command. Instead of promptly bringing Mr. Watson before an immigration judge, DHS had him languish in custody for nearly 50 days before his first hearing. In the interim, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), an executive agency of the Department of Justice, issued an opinion in a different matter that DHS continues to use to justify its inexcusable refusal to review Mr. Watson’s claims.
“For over two centuries, the United States has had laws that recognize that children of naturalized U.S. citizens can derive citizenship that vests automatically upon fulfillment of certain requirements,” said Robert Burns, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP’s New York office. “Regrettably, the district court misunderstood that Mr. Watson’s U.S. citizenship was irrevocable, such that it did not matter what the BIA concluded in 2008.”
The district court held that despite ICE’s gross negligence, it was shielded from paying damages for 1,246 of the 1,273 days Mr. Watson was detained. Even after DHS recognized its gross error and released Mr. Watson in rural Alabama, thousands of miles from home and with no money, the agency pursued deportation proceedings for another 14 months and USCIS refused to provide Mr. Watson proof of his citizenship for another 755 days.
“The scope of the emotional harm has been staggering on Davino,” said Mark Flessner, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP’s Chicago Office, “we are hopeful that a positive decision from the Second Circuit will provide him with a modicum of justice for the lifelong harm this five-year nightmare has had.”
Mr. Watson is represented by Mark Fleming, NIJC’s national litigation coordinator, and a team of Holland & Knight attorneys including Mark Flessner, Robert Burns, Tiana Stephens, Joshua McLaurin, and Lisa Kpor.
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