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Immigration agency pays Army veteran $400,000 for wrongfully detaining him

Rennison Vern Castillo, a naturalized U.S. citizen who spent seven years in the Army, was detained for months as a suspected illegal immigrant. The agency has issued an official apology.

February 24, 2011|By Andrew Becker
  • Rennison Castillo, an Army veteran and naturalized U.S. citizen, spent seven months in a federal detention center in Tacoma, Wash., on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant.
Rennison Castillo, an Army veteran and naturalized U.S. citizen, spent… (Darren Breen / The News Tribune )

An Army veteran who spent more than seven months in an immigration lockup, despite his protestations that he was a naturalized American citizen, has received a $400,000 settlement and a written apology from the U.S. government.

Rennison Vern Castillo, 33, of Lakewood, Wash., sued officials at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's Northwest Detention Center, where he was held as a suspected illegal immigrant.

In a letter that was part of the settlement, the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle acknowledged the immigration agency's mistake.

"I believe that none of my clients … would ever have wanted to, or knowingly would have, detained a veteran and United States citizen," wrote Philip H. Lynch, chief of the civil division in the U.S. attorney's office. "We very much regret that you were detained."

The settlement was to be formally announced Thursday.

Castillo was born in Belize and was a child when his mother brought him to this country. He grew up in Los Angeles and become a naturalized citizen in 1998 while in the Army, where he served for seven years.

In 2005, he served an eight-month jail term in Washington for a felony count of harassing a former girlfriend. Instead of being released after completing his sentence, he was transferred to the federal detention center in Tacoma. A federal officer told him that records showed he was an illegal immigrant.

Castillo repeatedly told immigration officers that he was a naturalized citizen.

"They were disrespectful and told me that I would say anything to get out of detention," Castillo said in a statement. "It was a nightmare."

In January 2006, an immigration judge ordered Castillo deported. With the help of attorneys, Castillo challenged the decision before the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals, which blocked the deportation. Immigration agency officials released him a month later without explanation.

His detention was the result of a paperwork mix-up: His name was misspelled in immigration records and he'd been assigned multiple "alien numbers."

A Los Angeles Times article in April 2009 detailed Castillo's case and several similar instances of mistaken detention of U.S. citizens or legal residents.

After the article was published, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton ordered procedures changed to avoid future mistakes, spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a statement Wednesday.

The agency "deeply regrets Mr. Castillo's detention and worked closely with the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle to seek a just resolution of this case," Kice said.

Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which represented Castillo, said: "It is important that the government recognized that closer attention must be paid to these cases, as it is simply inexcusable to have U.S. citizens locked up and placed in removal proceedings."

abecker@cironline.org

This report is published in cooperation with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, where Becker is a staff reporter.

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