Asylum Seeker Freed after 5 Years in Detention

SAN DIEGO — After languishing in detention for nearly five years, an asylum seeker who has lived in the United States since he was 11 years old was finally released from custody after the San Diego ACLU intervened on his behalf. Glorismel Centeno Ortiz was released on September 29, 2011, having spent three years in immigration detention and nearly two years in federal criminal custody for charges that were ultimately dismissed by a federal court. The government had held Centeno without a hearing to determine whether his detention was justified by classifying him as an “arriving alien,” a category that can apply even to individuals who have lived in the United States for decades with legal status. The government relies on Cold War-era rulings to justify its position that “arriving aliens” have no due process rights to physical liberty.

In a related case, this Wednesday, October 12, an attorney with the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties will argue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena to establish the legal principle that when the government releases individuals in response to the filing of litigation, a court should still decide whether the detention is lawful or not.

“We are thrilled that the government finally released Glorismel after so many years of being held without even a bond hearing to determine whether his detention was justified,” said Sean Riordan, staff attorney of the San Diego ACLU. “But this is a pattern we’ve seen before, in which the government seeks to avoid a ruling on the merits of these kinds of cases by arguing that since the detainee is no longer being physically held the case is moot, even though they continue to refuse to relinquish authority to re-detain him.”

Centeno had been detained in prison-like conditions as an immigration detainee for nearly three years. He was brought to Los Angeles by his mother, who was fleeing the violence of the Salvadoran civil war, in which her brother was killed by guerillas. As a teenager, Centeno became entangled with gangs and was convicted of armed robbery and deported to El Salvador, even though his petition for asylum was still pending. Fearing for his life Centeno returned to Los Angeles and obtained counseling from Homies Unidos, an organization that helps young people leave gangs.

Since his return to the United Sates, Centeno has dedicated his life to helping other young men leave the life of gangs. He has lead camping trips and given talks at schools, all the while working as a dishwasher, car mechanic, air conditioning repairman and raising his son. According to a senior staff member at Homies Unidos, Centeno is “one of our most reliable and committed volunteers.”

In 2007, Centeno went to Tijuana to enjoy a night out with friends. When he returned to the border, he was immediately arrested and charged with criminal illegal reentry after deportation. In July 2008, a judge dismissed criminal charges against Centeno, but he remained in detention several more years, until his release late last month. “I haven’t seen the ocean in years,” he said, looking down at the San Diego harbor on the sunny afternoon of his release.