A U.S. Army veteran and U.S. citizen, who was detained for seven months at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma as immigration officials prepared to deport him to Belize, has been awarded $400,000 — and granted a rare apology. Additionally, as a result, immigration officials have changed the way they handle cases when someone claims...

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An American citizen and U.S. Army veteran, who was detained for seven months at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma as immigration officials prepared to deport him to Belize, has been awarded $400,000 — and granted a rare apology.

Rennison Castillo’s settlement with the Department of Homeland Security comes more than five years after he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) despite his repeated protests that he was a naturalized U.S. citizen.

As a result of Castillo’s case, ICE instituted changes in the way it handles claims of citizenship by people in its custody.

“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,” Castillo, 33, said in a statement. “They were disrespectful and told me that I would say anything to get out of detention.

“It was a nightmare.”

According to his attorneys, Castillo, of Lakewood, first came to the U.S. when he was six, enlisting in the Army in 1996. He became a naturalized citizen during the seven years he served, before being honorably discharged in 2003.

Two years later, Castillo was jailed for violating a protection order and harassment. Before being released he was questioned by an immigration officer who asked about his immigration status.

Despite Castillo’s claims of U.S. citizenship, ICE took him into custody upon his release and began the process to deport him.

While there have been instances of U.S. citizens being detained and deported, they remain rare, said Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, who represented Castillo.

His case was complicated by inaccuracies in his immigration files, including misspellings of his name.

Still, the government’s handling of Castillo “doesn’t make sense on so many different levels,” Adams said.

Immigration authorities had access to information that would have shown Castillo was both a naturalized citizen and a veteran, he said. At one point, Castillo even made an offer to immigration officials: “Can we go to my car? My military card is in the trunk of my car.”

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 immediate family in the area to call for help.

Adams added: “When a person claims citizenship, the government has a burden of proving he or she is not.”

The Immigrant Rights Project filed suit on Castillo’s behalf against the immigration officers who handled his case. In a letter to Castillo, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Lynch expressed regret for the government’s actions, saying, “Regrettably, despite the fact that you are a veteran and a U.S. citizen … you were detained on the grounds that you were in the country illegally.”

In a memo to its field officers, ICE said it was instituting policies to, among other things, promptly and thoroughly investigate claims of citizenship.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.