Thrown into the maze: A U.S. citizen’s unfortunate odyssey through the immigration system

GUNNISON – Bernardo Medina was leaving a brief traffic-offense hearing in a Gunnison County courtroom Jan. 27 when he was stopped by federal immigration agents. They had been waiting in the back of the courtroom to question him about his citizenship status.

Medina, a U.S. citizen who was born in nearby Montrose, showed them his state identification card.

But that wasn’t enough.

In Medina’s account, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents told him that Colorado ID cards aren’t proof of legal residency. They loaded him into a transport van and took him on a frightening immigration-system odyssey. It ended three days later with Medina being turned out on an Aurora street corner with $5, a dead cell phone, no idea how to get home and no apology.

With that, the 21-year-old Gunnison resident became the latest number added to the count of thousands of U.S. citizens who have been detained mistakenly, and in violation of constitutional rights, by ICE agents.

ICE asserts that Medina was the one who broke the law by falsely stating that he was a Mexican citizen. ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said Medina had told two local officers over the previous four months that he was born in Mexico. Rusnok said Medina repeated that to an ICE agent on the day he was detained and said he had entered the U.S. illegally in 2013. Medina has denied that.

He very, very strongly denies that. That does not line up with the facts in this case,” said his attorney, Andy Richmond, who is speaking on Medina’s behalf while they weigh options for a lawsuit.

Medina’s story has continued to rattle this rural county. Immigration agents are known to show up in courtrooms on days when Spanish-speaking defendants are slated to appear. Citizen or not, those with Hispanic surnames have told attorneys and immigrant-rights activists they are afraid to show up in court for any matter because of the possibility of being detained.

This is a fairly serious concern for us, especially those of us who work closely with the immigrant community,” Richmond said. “They are terrified of who might be waiting for them. It is starting to interfere with the carrying out of justice.”

Medina’s story has heightened the fear.

The journey begins

Medina, who spent much of his life with his parents in Mexico and speaks broken English, had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in September. According to Richmond, the case was dismissed on the day Medina’s legal-system woes took an unexpected turn.

Instead of returning home after his hearing, Medina was driven 136 miles south to Alamosa to an ICE processing center. He says he was told he would have to answer questions before he would be returned to Gunnison. He was allowed to telephone his aunt and uncle, who lived in Gunnison, to tell them where he was.

Before they could seek help for him, he was driven another 164 miles north to an ICE detention facility in Colorado Springs. His last stop was Aurora where he was placed in the Aurora Detention Center, which is operated for ICE by the private GEO Group Inc.

While Medina was on this confusing journey and was being told he could be sent back to Mexico, his family and Marketa Zubkova, a representative of the local Hispanic Affairs Project, were trying frantically to locate him. Zubkova said no one answered her calls at the Alamosa processing facility. She left messages. Her calls weren’t returned.

She finally located Medina in Aurora Friday. She emailed his birth certificate to the facility that morning. Medina was released that afternoon.

He claimed multiple times to be an illegal alien. He never claimed to be a U.S. citizen until he was moved to the GEO facility in Aurora. Once he did claim US citizen status, and we received his birth certificate as proof of his status, he was immediately released,” Rusnok said.

Medina wasn’t given transportation back to Gunnison because he is a citizen, Rusnok said. ICE doesn’t transport citizens.

So Medina was left on a street corner in a city much larger than he was used to. His parents had taken him to the small town of Jesus Maria, in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, when he was 9 months old. He had not returned to the United States until he was in his late teens.

Medina told Richmond and Zubkova he had no idea where he was or how to get back to Gunnison. The proprietors of a taqueria across from the detention center took pity on him. They gave him food and a charge for his cell phone so he could call home. His family paid for a motel room that night and picked him up the next day.

Medina is now back at his hotel job in Mt. Crested Butte. But letters-to-the-editor in local newspapers show that some Gunnison residents are still riled by what happened. They are calling for an end to profiling in the county and expressing anger over the illegal detention of an American citizen.

The context

Rusnok said such mistaken detentions are “extremely rare.”

Statistics showing just how often it happens are not easy to come by. State-by-state tracking done by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, show that ICE detained a total of about 70,000 people in fiscal-year 2014. Nearly 1,300 of those detentions were in Colorado. Those records do not reflect if any of those detainers involved citizens.

However, research done by the University of California, Berkeley showed that 1.6 percent of those detained prior to April, 2011 were actually U.S. citizens. Some of the 3,600 citizens detained were held for months and at times for years. One citizen was detained for nearly four years.

In that context, Medina can be considered lucky that his erroneous detention lasted only days. But the fallout from that detention may not be over yet.

Rusnok said ICE may yet charge Medina with a felony for the alleged crime of giving false information to law enforcement officers.

Photo Credit: David Bleasdale, Creative Commons, Flickr.