U.S. citizen mistakenly jailed for being illegal immigrant

Ricky Ortega
Ricky Ortega
Sarra Ortega
Sarra Ortega
Mark Bolton
Mark Bolton

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A stunning case of mistaken identity landed a Louisville man in the middle of the illegal immigration debate. Ricky Ortega was arrested and jailed for days all because the government thought the man was in the country illegally. So Ortega turned to WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Eric Flack, and what he uncovered prompted major changes to the system and how local law enforcement handles the immigration issue.

Tossing football with his wife and two step children on a sunny spring day at Des Pres Park in Louisville, Ricky's life seems about as All-American as it gets. So when a big mistake, a first offense DUI, turned Ricky's life upside down, he thought the worst part would be telling his family.

"Definitely embarrassed," Ricky admitted.

But soon it would be the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections doing the explaining. Ricky was mistakenly jailed for days on charges he was an illegal immigrant.

"I felt a lot of anger, a lot of confusion, a lot of why," he said.

It all started on March 19, 2011, the day after Ricky's DUI conviction. Sentenced to home confinement, Metro Corrections officers showed up at Ricky's house and said Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, had put a detainer on him because the suspected Ricky was in the country illegally.

"I was just floored," Ricky remembered thinking. "I didn't understand."

Ricky didn't understand because he's a fourth generation American citizen. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Ricky said he doesn't even speak fluent Spanish.

"You know my mouth hits the floor first and I started laughing because this just can't be," said Sarra Ortega, Ricky's wife. "He was born in Houston, we have the birth certificate."

But none of that seemed to matter to Louisville Metro Corrections, who told them only ICE could lift the detainer. So as Ricky sat in jail, Sarra desperately tried to get in touch with ICE to clear Ricky's name.

"It's the federal government," Sarra said. "Everybody's at home, enjoying the weekend. And I didn't hear a single word from anybody."

In fact, Ricky still hadn't heard from ICE by Noon on Monday. So a Metro Corrections officer finally agreed to call ICE for him.

"And two minutes later it was over," Ricky said.

Only, it wasn't. Satisfied Ricky was not an illegal immigrant based on that conversation with the corrections officer, ICE dropped its attainder. But Ortega stayed in jail another 24 hours while Metro Corrections processed his paperwork. Ricky was finally released on Tuesday, March 22, after being mistakenly imprisoned for four days.

"I want answers," Ricky said. "I just want to know why, what happened."

ICE declined to be interviewed on camera. But in statements to the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter department, the agency confirmed it was a case of mistaken identity. ICE said Ortega's name and date of birth were close, but not an exact match, of an actual illegal immigrant that had been deported from Louisville. So when an ICE agent spotted Ricky in a corrections database, they put a detainer on him just in case. But ICE said they never told Metro Corrections to take Ricky to jail.

"At no time was Mr. Ortega in ICE custody, and at no time did ICE request that Mr. Ortega be taken into custody by Louisville Metro authorities," write Gail Montenegro, an ICE spokesperson.

But Mark Bolton, director of Louisville Metro Corrections, said his department should not take the blame for what happened.

"You know, I don't think we messed up," said Bolton.

Bolton said taking people on home confinement to jail when ICE puts a detainer on them has been a long standing practice in Jefferson County.

"It's not based on law," said Bolton, "it was based on policy."

Because of our investigation, that policy is now changing. After we started looking into Ricky's mistaken arrest, Metro Corrections decided it was not going to take people on home confinement to jail just because ICE places a detainer on them. Instead, Bolton said Metro Corrections will notify the Jefferson County Attorney's Office. If the County Attorney wants someone with a detainer jailed, they'll have to petition the court to do it.

"My fear is this happening again to an innocent person," said Ricky, who now plans to sue over what happened.

In an email sent to the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department, part of which is published below, Ricky's attorney's, Khalid Kahloon and Michael Augustsu, said this is not the first time and ICE detainer has landed an innocent man in prison.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of immigration law and criminal law attorneys who witness on daily basis the untold miseries their clients suffer because of these wrongful ICE detainers.

It is a sad day in America, a nation of immigrants, when U.S. citizens of certain ethnicity are presumed "illegals" because they don't fit the stereotype of what an American is supposed to look like.

What Mr. Ortega went through is illegal, humiliating, and very un-American. We intend to prosecute his case and hold these government official responsible for failing in their duty to uphold the constitutional rights of all American citizens, no matter the color of their skin."

Ricky said he's not suing out of spite, but to stand up for what's right.

"I just don't know what they were thinking," said Ricky.

In addition to the changes at Metro Corrections, ICE told us they are rolling out a program in a couple years will also help keep things like this from happening. The Secure Communities System will be in the hands of all law enforcement by 2013 and uses fingerprints and photos, instead of name and date of birth, to identify illegal immigrants.

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Copyright 2011 WAVE News. All rights reserved.