Monday, January 28, 2008
U.S. citizen freed by immigration officials. The burden of proof is on the individual to show they're legally entitled to be in the United States. ICE officials appear to have been oblivious to signs that they had made a serious mistake.
FLORENCE, Ariz. -- Thomas Warziniack, the Minnesota native whom U.S. authorities have been trying to deport as an illegal immigrant from Russia, was freed Thursday after his family produced a birth certificate and a U.S. senator demanded his release.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement had held Warziniack, 40, for weeks in an Arizona detention facility despite his assertions that he is a U.S. citizen. His family learned about his predicament from McClatchy Newspapers, which wrote about his case this week in an article about Americans caught up in a bureaucratic tangle when officials do not believe their claims of citizenship.
An unpublished study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit organization, identified 125 people in 2006 who were in immigration detention centers nationwide and who immigration lawyers believed had valid U.S. citizenship claims.
In Warziniack's case, ICE officials appear to have been oblivious to signs that they had made a serious mistake.
After he was arrested in Colorado on a minor drug charge, Warziniack, a longtime heroin addict, told probation officials wild stories about being shot seven times, stabbed twice and bombed four times as a Russian army colonel in Afghanistan, according to court records. He also insisted that he swam ashore to the U.S. from a Soviet submarine.
Court officials were skeptical. Not only did his story seem preposterous, but he also had a Southern accent and didn't speak Russian.
Colorado court officials quickly determined his true identity in a national crime database: He was a Minnesota-born man who grew up in Georgia. Before Warziniack was sentenced to prison on the drug charge, his probation officer surmised in a report that he could be mentally ill.
Although it took only minutes for McClatchy to confirm with Minnesota officials that a birth certificate under Warziniack's name and birth date was on file, Colorado prison officials notified federal authorities that Warziniack was a foreign-born prisoner.
McClatchy also tracked down Warziniack's three half sisters. Even though they hadn't seen him in almost 20 years, they were willing to vouch for him.
One, Missy Dolle, called the detention center repeatedly, until officials there stopped returning her calls.
Warziniack, meanwhile, waited impatiently for an opportunity to prove his case. After he contacted the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a group that provides legal advice to immigrants, a local attorney recently agreed to represent him for free.
Dolle and her husband, Keith, a retired sheriff's deputy in Mecklenburg County, N.C., flew to Arizona to attend her brother's hearing before an immigration judge.
Before she left, she e-mailed Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. After someone from his office contacted ICE, immigration officials promised to release Warziniack if they got a birth certificate.
After scrambling to get a power of attorney to obtain their brother's birth certificate, the sisters got a copy the day before the hearing.
On Thursday, however, government lawyers told an immigration judge during a deportation hearing that they needed a week to verify the authenticity of the birth record. The judge delayed his ruling.
"I still can't believe this is happening in America," Dolle said.
Later that day, however, ICE officials changed their minds and said he could be released this week. They said they confirmed his birth certificate, but they didn't acknowledge any problem with the handling of the case.
The officials blamed conflicting information for the mix-up.
"The burden of proof is on the individual to show they're legally entitled to be in the United States," ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said