Jake Johnston never dreamed a quick round of barhopping in Tijuana, Mexico, last month could end up costing his parents $15,000.
A U.S. resident since he was 2 days old, Johnston, 19, went to San Diego with two college friends on spring break and they strolled across the border to have a few beers and tequilas.
The two friends made it back, but Johnston didn't. Immigration authorities jailed Johnston for 15 days after he failed to produce documentation showing his legal status. When officials agreed to release him April 9, they wouldn't tell his parents where they could pick him up, held him until nightfall, and then dropped him off in downtown San Diego two hours after a scheduled flight home to Oregon.
His father, Robert Johnston, a Canadian citizen who has been a legal permanent resident since 1967, is still fuming. "This, to me, was just plain vindictiveness," he said. Born in a Canadian hospital near his childhood home in Sumas, Wash., Jake Johnston became a legal permanent U.S. resident when his parents drove him across the border on Sept. 29, 1983. But the former Immigration and Naturalization Service never gave him the green card that would prove his status despite inquiries by his family and confirmation by a high-ranking immigration official years ago that he was entitled to one.
To the Johnstons and their lawyer, that was bad enough, but the new three-headed immigration service, housed under different acronyms in the fledgling Department of Homeland Security, is even worse. They complain the breakup of the INS left no one in overall command in the former agency's district where each of the three new bureaus has its own interim director.
"I think what's happened is the INS -- a terribly inefficient bureaucracy to start with -- has now merged with Homeland Security," Robert Johnston said. "So now you have a terribly inefficient agency on testosterone. They are power-hungry and they are desperate to catch all these Mexican and Canadian 'terrorists.' "
Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy said there are no district directors because "that is the law. Congress made it clear that having all functions overseen by one person didn't work." He also pointed out that the new department is only six weeks old.
"There are going to be growing pains," he said. "Please give us a little time to work this out."
Jake Johnston's first run-in was on March 24 at the San Ysidro, Calif., border crossing with what is now the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP). A freshman with a track scholarship at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., he had a student ID, his Oregon driver's license and a Social Security card -- more than he had needed on previous trips -- but this time it wasn't enough. He said he had lived all his life in the United States, but when asked where he was born, he answered, correctly, "Abbotsford, B.C."
Unable to produce a green card or green-card ID number, Johnston was detained. His mother, Margrethe, also a Canadian citizen and legal permanent resident, said a border officer called her in Salem asking whether she had any papers. She didn't. A dispatcher for the Oregon state police, she says she explained how "Jake was in Canada long enough to be born" and had been in the United States since he came home from the hospital. But she said the paperwork was never completed.
David H. Lambert, a former INS assistant district director in Seattle who reviewed the case in the late 1980s at the behest of the Johnstons, said the lack of paperwork made no difference in Jake's legal status. Lambert had talked to border inspector Richard Vreeke, who was on duty when the Johnstons brought Jake home in 1983 and found they had done all they needed to do to make the baby a bona fide permanent resident.
In accordance with regulations, Vreeke said the Johnstons showed him their green cards and Jake's birth certificate. Saying that was all that was necessary, Lambert recalled telling Vreeke to make a "nunc pro tunc" (now for then) record of Jake Johnston's lawful entry into the country, but "apparently this was still not done."
Robert Johnston, a recreational vehicle salesman in Bend, Ore., acknowledges that he and his former wife should have pressed harder for Jake's credentials, but adds: "If I buy a candy bar and get a receipt for it, and then I lose the receipt, that doesn't mean the candy bar isn't mine."
Lambert agrees. "The mix-up in this case was at least in part the fault of INS," he said in a detailed and "urgent" April 3 note to Robert J. Okin, the interim director in Seattle of the Bureau of Customs and Immigration Services (BCIS), another arm of the new bureaucracy. Okin replied that he had no jurisdiction in the matter.
A copy was sent to lawyers at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) in San Diego, which was now in charge of the case, but to no avail.
Margrethe Johnston was baffled by their insistence on treating her son as a criminal. She says the BCBP officer who called her March 24 first told her that "it happens all the time, I understand," but on a second call 90 minutes later, abruptly told her that her son was going to be locked up for deportation to Canada, without a hearing. She tried to get more details the next day, but was told, "Jake is over 18 and has his right to privacy."
Jake Johnston was tossed into a common cell at the San Ysidro jail with dozens of other prisoners and forced to sleep on the floor with lights glaring all day. From there, he was transferred to Otay Mesa, a privately owned prison near the Mexican border that is run for immigration authorities.
The Johnstons hired immigration lawyer Dan Larsson on March 28 when they learned their son was not only to be deported to Canada, but also banned from visiting the United States for at least five years. Larsson said he headed off deportation by persuading Canadian officials not to give the go-ahead, but was turned down when he asked that Jake be released on parole.
On April 3, Larsson said he was stunned to get notice of the charges, which asserted that Johnston had falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen. Since that is a deportable offense, Larsson questioned Johnston and his two friends. All denied he made any such statement.
Forced to fly to San Diego at premium prices for an April 9 hearing, Robert Johnston said they were driving to Otay Mesa when BICE lawyer Kerri A. Harlin called Larsson and offered to let Jake Johnston return to Oregon on his own recognizance for a hearing there. The offer, which the parents accepted, came as NBC's "Today" show was preparing to do a story on the case.
"We spent $3,000 getting there only to find out that someone on high said, 'Let him go,' " Robert Johnston said. "By the time the dust settles, with transportation, legal fees and all that, it'll probably cost us $15,000."