MANHATTAN (CN) — Last year, a U.S. citizen who spent more than three years in immigration detention received an $82,500 judgment for his ordeal, but a New York-based federal appeals court overturned even that pittance on Monday.
Davino Watson, 32, obtained his citizenship through his father, who was born in Jamaica and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2002.
Some five years later, Watson pleaded guilty to state court charges of selling cocaine, and that conviction enmeshed him in a sloppy Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation.
Agents confused the name of his New Yorker father Hopeton Ulando Watson with Hopeton Livingston Watson, a non-citizen living in Connecticut.
The younger Watson provided his parents’ phone number to corroborate his citizenship, but ICE agents did not call it, court records show.
At the time, Watson was 23 years old with only an 11th-grade education. He did not have an attorney to clarify the misunderstanding during his extensive immigration detention from May 8, 2008 to Nov. 2, 2011.
In a scathing ruling last year, Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein said the government owed an apology to Watson, whom he found was only legally entitled to “relatively negligible damages” of $82,500 for four weeks of his much longer detention under existing precedent.
“There is a clear, unmet need for counsel in immigration cases,” Weinstein declared on Feb. 25, 2016.
“Had an attorney been available to him at the outset, plaintiff probably promptly would have been declared a citizen and released almost immediately after he was arrested, if he were arrested at all,” last year’s 50-page ruling continued.
On Monday, the Second Circuit showed sympathy for Watson, but took away his only relief.
“It is arresting and disturbing that an American citizen was detained for years in immigration proceedings while facing deportation, but Watson’s claims for damages are foreclosed by precedent,” U.S. Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote in a 19-page opinion.
Joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston, the majority found that Watson failed to file his false imprisonment claims before the statute of limitations expired.
Weinstein had agreed to apply the principle of equitable tolling to stop the clock, blaming Watson’s lack of legal counsel and education for the lawsuit’s untimeliness.
The Second Circuit, however, found that Watson’s case did not meet this exception.
“Equitable tolling is a rare remedy to be applied in unusual circumstances, not a cure-all for an entirely common state of affairs,” the majority wrote.
In a dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann skewered his colleagues’ reasoning.
“I would hope that nothing about Watson’s 1,273‐day detention can be said to have been ‘an entirely common state of affairs,’” he wrote. “If it were, we should all be deeply troubled.”
For Katzmann, who serves as the chief judge of the Second Circuit, Watson’s case highlights the injustice that immigrants “have no specific right to counsel” under our current system.
“I am hopeful that one day soon no immigrant or citizen will be forced to go through a predicament like Watson’s without the assistance of counsel to help vindicate his cause,” he wrote.
Watson, who is rebuilding his life with a labor job, is no longer without counsel.
His attorney Mark Flessner, from the Chicago office of Holland & Knight, said his client is disappointed with the Second Circuit ruling.
“We’re considering our options about what to do,” he added.
Meanwhile, Flessner contends that lengthy detention has taken its toll on Watson, whom he says suffers from depression, a bad back, and post-traumatic stress.
Mary McCarthy, executive director of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, said that Watson’s case highlights the “awful injustices” that follow lack of access to counsel in immigration proceedings.
“I think that’s one of the real concerns within our immigration system: lack of transparency and accountability,’ she said.
Watson is hardly the only U.S. citizen thrown into immigration detention, McCarthy said, adding that the opaqueness of the system makes it difficult to learn the scale of the problem.
Her advocacy group had filed a legal brief with the appellate court on Watson’s behalf.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment on the ruling.