U.S. Citizen Who Says He Was Held in ICE Custody for More Than a Month Wants Accountability

17December 2021

A Riverside County man says he was held in an ICE detention facility for more than a month, even though he’s a U.S. citizen, and now he wants to hold the agency accountable.

Last summer the 62-year-old Brian Bukle was about to be released from prison after serving two years for assault and possession of a firearm. But on the day he was supposed to get out, contractors for U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement showed up at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi and took him into custody.

“The things that he went through there, no one should have to go through,” said his brother Basil. “We are all U.S. citizens through naturalization through my parents.”

Brian came with his family to the U.S. from the British Virgin Islands when he was 2 and has been a U.S. citizen for more than 50 years.

He ended up in ICE custody for 36 days at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility.

Jenny Zhao, a senior staff attorney at for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Asian law caucus, says it started with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“As soon as he entered CDCR custody, CDCR essentially called ICE on him and informed ICE that they had a foreign-born person who had entered custody,” she said.

“This was despite the fact that Mr. Bukle had repeatedly told CDCR staff that he was in fact a U.S. citizen, despite having been born abroad.

The corrections department wouldn’t talk about Brian’s case, but said in a statement that, “if the information provided during reception, or anytime thereafter, indicates the individual may be a foreign national, staff completes a detainer summary and sends the individual’s name and information to ICE, who makes the determination of whether to put an immigration hold or detainer on the individual and is responsible for forwarding the hold or detainer to CDCR.”

“This is ICE’s worst nightmare, detaining a U.S. citizen,” said John Sandweg, who served as an acting director of ICE during the Obama administration and was not involved in Brian’s case.

He says ICE officers should have checked Brian’s citizenship claims before taking him into custody.

“In the sense that during the time he was in custody, they had the time to vet, you know, his nationality and they could have determined he was a U.S. Citizen,” he said. “It’s pretty clear to me that no efforts were made during that time frame.”

Brian and his attorneys say while he was in the detention center for longer than a month, he says he repeatedly told ICE he was a U.S. citizen.

“Mr. Bukle did try to raise the fact that he was a U.S. citizen with ICE repeatedly,” said Vasudha Talla, the immigrants’ rights program director at the ACLU Northen California. “When he was first taken to ICE’s field office in Bakersfield, he not only told officers there he was a U.S. citizen, he also had his brother call the office to find out what the officers needed to demonstrate citizenship.”

ICE did not respond to the claims saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Now Brian is suing.

Along with false imprisonment, the lawsuit also accuses ICE of endangering Brian’s life by placing him in a detention facility during the pandemic.

“I was concerned,” his brother said. “I was telling him that he needed to make sure that he was protecting himself. That if he had a mask, he needed to wear a mask.”

“I’ve been very clear about this. It was incumbent upon ICE during the pandemic and frankly now to minimize detention to the maximum extent possible,” Sandweg said.

Brian was released after attorneys showed an immigration judge proof of his citizenship, records they say ICE had access to all along.

While his brother is now free, Basil says he’s still too upset to talk about what happened.

“Even today, even now, I am feeling distressed and pain of that,” his brother said. “That he had to go through that and no one should have to go through that.

Brian’s family and attorneys hope the lawsuit will help stop this from happening to another U.S. citizen.

They’re urging sate lawmakers to pass AB 937 or the Vision Act, which would close loopholes in California’s sanctuary laws, and prohibit the CDCR from transferring inmates to ICE custody upon their release.

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