One early morning two weeks ago, Christopher Zambrano was biking home on the 79th Street Causeway near North Bay Village when one of several men in black clothes riding in an SUV ordered him to stop.
Fearing imminent robbery, Zambrano pedaled faster to get away but the man in the SUV switched on flashing lights and through a loudspeaker ordered him to pull over.
As he got off his bicycle, Zambrano heard the man ask for his papers.
“I said, ‘What do you mean papers?’ He said ‘ID.’ I told him I had nothing on me, not even a driver’s license, because I don’t have a car.”
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As the man asked if he was legally in the country, more men clad in black converged on the scene in other SUVs near a bus stop on the eastbound lanes of a bridge linking Miami and North Bay Village.
Zambrano said he was a citizen, but the men who detained him refused to release him.
They summoned a Miami-Dade police officer who then transported Zambrano to jail because he had an outstanding warrant for driving with an expired license in 2008.
Zambrano is the latest U.S. citizen to complain about being detained and questioned about his immigration status despite having been born in the United States.
He contacted El Nuevo Herald after reading a story about the cases of four other U.S. citizens, including a South Florida-born teen detained near Florida City by a Border Patrol officer, who were mistaken for undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, a Coral Gables immigration attorney also contacted the newspaper to say that two clients are now at the Krome detention center in west Miami-Dade even after claiming U.S. citizenship.
Eduardo Soto, the lawyer, said his clients did not have U.S. passports or certificates of citizenship, but noted that they do have documents to prove they derived citizenship through the naturalization of U.S. citizen parents.
Their cases, however, are more complex than that of Zambrano, who has a U.S. passport and a birth certificate issued in Atlanta, where he was born of a Guatemalan father and an Irish-Polish mother. However, he was not carrying those documents when he was detained on June 7.
Zambrano said the accounts of some of the people quoted in the El Nuevo Herald story matched his own experience as he returned home after visiting a friend in Miami.
Though the men in black clothes who stopped and handcuffed him never identified themselves, Zambrano now believes they were immigration officers assigned to a Homeland Security unit.
He said that as the Miami-Dade Police officer transported him to jail, he overheard the officer say that Homeland Security had summoned the police.
Miami-Dade Police spokesman Javier Baez confirmed that an officer transported Zambrano because of an outstanding bench warrant. Baez, however, said he did not know which agency.
DHS was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a merger of various federal agencies including U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol are DHS agencies and have, in the past, said that as a general rule they do not detain U.S. citizens. ICE has said that sometimes it’s difficult to corroborate someone’s claim of citizenship because there is no national birth records database.
The Border Patrol has said federal law gives agents “broad law enforcement authorities, including the authority to question individuals, make arrests, and take and consider evidence’’ regardless of whether someone claims citizenship.
Immigrant rights activists say the issue likely stems from pressures on immigration agents by supervisors to increase the number of foreign national arrests to meet higher deportation quotas.
Activists say that as a result, immigration agents are targeting more and more Hispanics in the belief that they are more likely to be foreign nationals than non-Hispanics.
Both ICE and Border Patrol deny any racial or ethnic profiling in their operations.
But the fact remains that all of the citizens who spoke about their cases with El Nuevo Herald are Hispanic, either native born or naturalized.
Some immigration experts say the real problem lies in an irreconcilable dilemma in federal law.
Under immigration law, foreign nationals in the U. S. must carry immigration documents. But U.S. citizens are not required to carry documents to prove citizenship.
And for some agents it may be difficult to distinguish between foreign Hispanics and U.S. Hispanics, especially in an urban area such as South Florida that draws Hispanics from throughout the Americas and Spain.
Though immigration agents say they have procedures to verify whether a person is a citizen, in the end it’s up to the agent to investigate.
The issue first arose in 2008 when other cases of U.S. citizens detained and even deported by immigration authorities were documented by McClatchy Newspapers in an investigative report.
But it was only in early June that U.S. citizens detained or questioned by immigration officers in South Florida discussed their cases publicly.
Soto, the Coral Gables immigration attorney who represents the two detained men who claim citizenship, said they are both Hispanic, one originally born in Peru and the other from the Dominican Republic.
The Peru-born man has been ordered deported and the other is in deportation proceedings, Soto said.
Soto would not identify the men by name because he did not have authorization from their families to do so.
Both arrived in the U. S. when they were minors and both derived citizenship from at least one parent who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, Soto said.
The men were detained by immigration officers because they have criminal records and were classified as foreign nationals in records, Soto said.
When they were young they had green cards but their parents did not replace them with U.S. passports or citizenship certificates, according to Soto.
Both claimed citizenship after being detained, Soto said. In the case of the Peru-born man, an immigration judge disregarded the claim and ordered him deported, though the deportation order has not been carried out.
Zambrano, for his part, says he now carries his U.S. passport at all times in case he encounters immigration agents who do not believe he is an American.
“I carry it in my pocket, just in case,” he said.