ARLINGTON, Texas – Authorities threatened a Texas native with deportation after unpaid tickets landed her in jail and officers mistook her for an illegal immigrant with the same name and birthday.
Instead of resolving her arrest on the tickets within a few hours, Alicia Rodriguez spent 16 hours in custody and missed her children's first day of school. She was freed after an officer checked her birth certificate and Social Security number.
But she claims no one told her why she was being held until the morning after her arrest, when she was being transferred between jails.
"I was panicking at that point," the 29-year-old accountant said Thursday, three days after her release. "I was worried about my kids wondering where I was. And I can't even speak Spanish, and I was worried about being sent to a foreign country where I don't know anyone."
Arlington police acknowledged that officers should have checked her fingerprints after a criminal history check revealed that an Alicia Rodriguez, a Mexican citizen with several aliases and the same birthday as the jailed woman, had been deported.
The women were about the same height, but the Texas-born mother of three weighs about 25 pounds more. Still, police thought the women could be the same, because the illegal immigrant's information was from 1999.
"It was our mistake, and we apologize," Arlington police spokeswoman Christy Gilfour said.
Rodriguez said police didn't do enough to verify her identity and refused to believe her assertions that she is a U.S. citizen.
"I don't think it was an honest mistake," she said. "There were many steps they missed and didn't follow up on."
An Arlington officer pulled over Rodriguez on Sunday night after checking her license plates and discovering two warrants for her arrest in nearby Dalworthington Gardens. One warrant was issued because she was cited last year for driving without insurance, and the other because she failed to show up in court on that charge, she said.
After booking her into jail, Arlington police contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check her citizenship status, which Gilfour said is routine for all suspects believed to be born in another country.
Rodriguez said she was then questioned over the telephone by an immigration official who warned her she could be charged with perjury for lying about her birthplace and other details. She was later told by a police officer that authorities didn't believe she was who she claimed to be -- but no one said they thought she was an illegal immigrant.
"I thought somebody had committed a scary crime and had stolen my identity," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said she told the officers to check her fingerprints, which were taken when she was booked, as well as her voter registration card and voting history. Meanwhile, she spent the night in a two-person cell.
Rodriguez's sister, Deborah Evans, said she delivered a birth certificate and Social Security card Monday morning, first to Arlington and then to the Dalworthington Gardens station after her sister was transferred there. But Evans said officers at both stations told her repeatedly that her sister was going to be deported.
A Dalworthington Gardens officer checking the information discovered the mistaken identity, Sgt. David Henderson said.
When Rodriguez's information was verified, ICE dropped the hold placed on her and she was released Monday afternoon, agency spokesman Carl Rusnok said. She had paid her ticket fines earlier in the day.
By the time Rodriguez was freed, her sister had left and she had to walk about three miles to the impound lot to retrieve her car.
Rusnok said the agency acted appropriately, especially since the deported woman who had been deported three times also had claimed to be an American citizen.
"We had a very good reason to doubt her validity," Rusnok said of the Texan.
Marisol Perez, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said there have been at least five similar mix-ups this year nationwide.
"It demonstrates the dangers when people are perceiving immigrant status based on artificial reasons, and sometimes people do not have the training or expertise (to verify identities)," Perez said. "We're talking about everybody's individual rights."