Carlos Rios says he kept telling the people who handcuffed him, put him in a van and took him to the Northwest detention center that he was a U.S. citizen. In fact, Rios told them, he had his passport in a bag he was carrying.
They refused to look, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court of Western Washington. He also repeatedly told officials at the detention center in Tacoma of his citizenship. They kept him there for a week in November 2019 before a records check led to his release.
Now, Rios, a 50-year-old Everett welder, is suing the federal government, claiming arrest and imprisonment, negligence and other charges.
“It think it’s pretty emblematic of what we were seeing at the height of the Trump craziness, before the pandemic hit and ICE put the brakes on putting as many immigrants as they could into detention,” said Matt Adams of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which is representing Rios.
ICE officers, he said, arrested people — often without legally-required probable cause — and afterward looked for legal justification.
ICE spokesperson David Yost said he could not comment because litigation is ongoing.
Even before the Trump administration, immigration authorities were known to mistakenly detain U.S. citizens. In 2005, U.S. Army veteran and Belize native Rennison Castillo was taken to the Tacoma facility, where he was held for seven-and-a-half months despite his insistence that he was a naturalized citizen.
He received a $400,000 settlement and an apology from the Department of Justice in 2010.
Around that time, Adams said, NWIRP compiled a list of 16 U.S. citizens who had been detained in Tacoma. As the Castillo lawsuit proceeded, ICE instituted new policies requiring officers to immediately investigate claims of citizenship and alert a supervisor. The problem abated, according to Adams.
But all sorts of immigration policies changed under President Donald Trump, who sought to deport as many people illegally in the U.S. as possible.
That led to what Adams characterizes as discriminatory stops based on the way people look or the language they speak, rather than specific facts suggesting they are in the U.S. without authorization. This year, NWIRP won two $35,000 settlements from the federal government related to Border Patrol stops of people riding Greyhounds buses in Spokane. They include Mohanad Elshieky, a Portland comedian from Libya who had recently been granted asylum.
Rios’ detention came about after the Washington State Patrol arrested him on suspicion of driving his motorcycle under the influence. He was booked into the Pierce County Jail.
When he got out the next day, taking his passport and other belongings that had been put in a plastic bag, two individuals were waiting outside the jail to take him to the detention center.
Adams said NWIRP has requested records from the jail to find out if it had notified ICE of Rios’ release in violation of the “Keep Washington Working Act,” passed by the Legislature six months earlier and prohibiting many forms of cooperation between state and immigration officials.
Patti Jackson, chief of corrections for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, initially said a warrant for Rios had been signed by a judge. State law allows cooperation in such cases.
But Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Sgt. Darren Moss later said Jackson did not have the document in front of her and it was, in fact, an immigration detainer, which is not signed by a judge and is not supposed to be honored by local officials, according to the Keep Washington Working Act.
The words “ready for pickup” were written in blue ink across the detainer, according to a copy obtained by Adams from jail officials and reviewed by The Seattle Times.
Moss said jail officials did not violate state law because they did not hold Rios for immigration officers, but merely let them know when the welder was being released, which is public information. Adams, however, contends sharing that information is a violation.
Rios, who was born in Mexico and has lived in the U.S. since the 1980s, becoming a citizen in 2000, said he was distraught at being held in the prisonlike Tacoma facility. “I cannot understand why I was detained and why no one listened to me,” he said in a news release issued by NWIRP.
To make matters worse, Rios’ lawsuit says, he was put in an isolated cell for people at risk of self-harm. In such cells, prison officials often remove items that people could use to hurt themselves. Rios’ bed was taken and he was forced to sleep on the floor, according to his complaint, which says officials warned him they might also confiscate his clothes and medicate him.
After a week, he was brought to ICE’s offices in Tukwila — Adams said he doesn’t know why — where officials discovered he was a citizen.
Rios’ disappearance cost him a job he was about to start and strained his marriage, according to the complaint. He is asking for $500,000 in compensation.
Note: This story was updated after the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department corrected information it previously provided about whether a judge had signed a warrant for Rios.