Being a U.S. citizen and son of a decorated Vietnam veteran, Hector Veloz never expected to find himself captive in an ICE jail. But that's exactly what happened when immigration officials mistook him for an illegal immigrant and threw him into an Arizona jail cell for 13 months starting in 2007.
"It was a nightmare," Veloz, 37, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Veloz was born in Mexico because his mother moved there to stay with relatives while his father, a U.S. citizen, was abroad fighting in the Vietnam war. He and his mother returned to the U.S. when his father came home and have lived there ever since. Veloz was automatically a citizen at birth, though his parents never obtained his certificate of citizenship.
In 2006, Veloz was convicted of receiving stolen property after purchasing a car that had been stolen. He served eight months and was about to be released when he was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"I asked, ‘I’m a U.S. citizen, why am I being put through deportation?’" he recalled.
The ICE paperwork stated that he had entered the country illegally and that his father was a Mexican citizen.
Veloz then had to prove his citizenship from behind bars. An aunt tracked down his father’s birth certificate and his own, along with his parents’ marriage certificate, as well as his father’s school, military and Social Security records. After being detained by ICE for nine months, on top of the time her served for his crime, Veloz was finally granted a hearing in which a judge determined he was a citizen. But immigration authorities appealed the decision, and Veloz was detained for five more months before he found the necessary legal help and a judge dismissed his case.
"The system is set up so even if they believe you, you have to prove it in court. It could take six months to five years to prove it and you're detained in the meantime," said Holly Cooper, a professor of immigration law at UC Davis, who helped Veloz win his freedom on appeal. "You give up your citizenship at the prison door."