A U.S. Customs and Border patrol officer stands on a bridge in May at a port of entry between Mexico and the United States in McAllen, Tex. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)      

This is an incredible story:

Davino Watson told the immigration officers that he was a U.S. citizen. He told jail officials that he was a U.S. citizen. He told a judge. He repeated it again and again.

There is no right to a court-appointed attorney in immigration court. Watson, who was 23 and didn’t have a high school diploma when he entered ICE custody, didn’t have a lawyer of his own. So he hand-wrote a letter to immigration officers, attaching his father’s naturalization certificate, and kept repeating his status to anyone who would listen.

Still, Immigration and Customs Enforcement kept Watson imprisoned as a deportable alien for nearly 3 1/2 years. Then it released Watson, who was from New York, in rural Alabama with no money and no explanation. Deportation proceedings continued for another year.

Watson was correct all along: He was a U.S. citizen.

He then sued, and a federal district court awarded him $82,500. That’s a paltry sum for what he went through. But it gets worse.

On Monday, an appeals court ruled that Watson, now 32, is not eligible for any of that money — because while his case is “disturbing,” the statute of limitations actually expired while he was still in ICE custody without a lawyer.

So while Watson was being illegally detained, while he was being denied a lawyer, while he was being ignored as he pleaded with these federal agencies to simply check his documentation, the statute of limitations on his window in which to file a lawsuit was slowly ticking away. The government wasn’t merely incompetent and cruel — it then rewarded itself for its incompetence and cruelty. If you work in immigration enforcement, the lesson here is clear: If you happen to learn that you or your agency has mistakenly detained an American citizen, feign ignorance and keep that citizen detained until he or she is no longer able to file a lawsuit.

Watson’s story also exposes the administrative lie behind refusing to provide legal counsel for indigent people suspected of being in the country illegally. Because most immigration proceedings are considered civil and not criminal, there is no Sixth Amendment right to counsel. But the fact that someone can be detained for years is a pretty good indication that immigration enforcement is a criminal procedure in every way except how the government has chosen to classify it. Which of course is the only way that matters.

There’s a temptation to call a story like this “Kafkaesque.” But I doubt even Kafka could have come up with this — and if had, he’d likely have discarded it as too implausible for fiction. I mean, it’s almost as bad as learning that an innocent man spent 30 years on death row … and then passing a bill to speed up executions.