American immigration policy can be complex and subjective. So much so that a Queens man spent 49 months in detention because immigration officials may have misinterpreted the law. Gerald Nwozuzu, it turned out, had been a U.S. citizen the whole time.
On Monday, the 36-year-old auto mechanic was finally released.
Nwozuzu, who was born in Nigeria, faced deportation after pleading guilty to an illegal gun possession charge in 2002. He was sentenced to probation but no jail time for the crime, according to the Daily News, which first reported the story.
Because of the mark on the rap sheet, the Feds moved to deport Nwozuzu in 2005. He spent 18 months in a Pennsylvania detention center. He spent the next four years free, as the Board of Immigration Appeals reviewed his case. But after it ruled against him in 2010, he got locked up in a detention center in New Jersey.
He’d been there for 31 months before catching a break this week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit determined that Nwozuzu has actually been a citizen since 1994. He was 17 then, and his parents had become U.S. citizens. Under federal law (8 USC § 1433) in 1994, a minor “residing permanently” in the U.S. when a parent becomes a citizen automatically acquires citizenship.
Immigration officials, however, interpreted “residing permanently” to mean the same thing as being a “permanent resident.” This minor semantic distinction was crucial because a green card makes a person a “permanent resident,” and Nwozuzu had never gotten around to applying for one.
This questionable interpretation, Judge Denny Chin stated, went against the whole purpose of the law.
“The intent of Congress” when it passed the law in 1993, the federal judge wrote in the decision, was “to keep families intact where possible.”
The officials’ confusion likely stemmed from the fact that the relevant portion of the law changed slightly between the day Nwozuzu’s parents became citizens, in 1994, and the day Nwozuzu was arrested, in 2002.
When Congress passed the Children’s Citizen Act of 2000, the wording of section 1433 cleared up the legal fog. The standard was no longer “residing permanently.” Instead a child had to live in the U.S. “pursuant to a lawful admission for permanent residence.” “Lawful permanent residence” requires a green card or an I-551 passport stamp.
But because Nwozuzu would have already been a citizen in 1994, the court concluded, the change should not have applied to him.