Lurdes C. da Silva, 03/14/2008
Pedro Guzman, a 30 year-old California native, was missing several months in
Mexico after being wrongly deported last May.
The mentally disabled man had been arrested and jailed on a
misdemeanor trespassing charge. For about three months, his family searched
for him in shelters, jails and morgues in Mexico.
According to a lawsuit filed a couple weeks ago on Guzman's behalf
against the Department of Homeland Security and the Los Angeles County
Sheriff's Department in a federal court in Los Angeles by the American Civil
Liberties Union, in order to survive he rummaged for food in garbage cans
and washed himself in rivers. Although he tried to enter the United States
on several occasions, he was turned away. He was found last August near the
Calexico border and reunited with his family.
"I will never forget what Peter looked like when he finally returned
to the U.S. - exhausted and in terrible shape," Guzman's brother, Michael,
told the Associated Press. "Peter's life is forever changed by what his
government did to him."
Attorney Jim Brosnahan, who is representing Guzman, said not only does
Guzman's family want some vindication but they also want to make sure
immigration officials "understand they can't do this."
"They should have apologized and said they would take steps to make
sure this doesn't happen again," Atty. Brosnahan, told the Associated Press.
A statement released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a
branch of Homeland Security, called the incident a "one-of-a-kind case" and
added more than 1 million illegal immigrants have been deported since the
However, Rachel Rosenbloom, a supervising attorney at Boston's
College's Center for Human Rights and International Justice, said Guzman's
case is not an isolated incident.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," she told O Jornal.
She said her center is aware of at least eight cases in which U.S.
citizens have been removed from the country.
"These cases draw people's attention because they are U.S. citizens,
but what they show is the underlying problem in the system that anyone who
is in this vast system of immigration detention is very familiar with," she
One such person is Deolinda Smith-Willmore, a partially blind,
71-year-old with schizophrenia, born in New York to an African-American
father and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
For reasons that appear to have been related to her mental illness,
she identified herself as a Dominican, while in prison for assaulting a
According to Smith-Willmore, she informed immigration officers of her
U.S. citizenship while detained, but no attempt was made to verify her claim
and she was not referred to an immigration judge. She was processed through
Upon her arrival, the government of the Dominican Republic housed her
in a nursing home and obtained a U.S. attorney for her who easily obtained a
copy of her birth certificate, said Rosenbloom.
In another case, Sharon McKinght, a U.S. citizen of Jamaican descent
was subjected to expedited removal upon her return to the United States from
Jamaica in 2000.
McKnight, who is developmentally disabled, was taken into custody by
immigration officials under the suspicion of carrying a fraudulent U.S.
passport. Family members who were waiting for her at the airport discovered
she was being detained and secured a copy of her birth certificate.
Nevertheless, Rosenbloom said, McKnight was left overnight in a room
at the airport, handcuffed and shackled to her chair and was not fed or
allowed to use a bathroom, Rosenbloom said. In the morning she was deported
and was only allowed to return to the United States after a member of
Congress intervened on her behalf.
Rosenbloom - who testified before the U.S. of Representatives
Judiciary Committee's Subcomittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees,
Border Security and International Law at a hearing on Problems with ICE
Interrogation, Detention and Removal Procedures on Feb. 13 - maintains that
such mistakes are "virtually inevitable under current deportation laws."
"We don't think they [immigration laws] provide enough safeguards to
catch cases like this," she told O Jornal.
Gary E. Mead, deputy director of ICE's Office of Detention and Removal
Operations, regarding safeguards implemented by ICE, said that "Even though
ICE has never knowingly or intentionally detained or removed a U.S. citizen,
ICE is currently reviewing its policies and procedures to determine if even
greater safeguards can be put in place to prevent the rare instance where
this event occurs."
He said ICE anticipates completing the review in the next 30 days.
"The integrity of our immigration system requires fair and effective
enforcement of our nation's immigration laws," he said. "By aggressively
enforcing these laws to the best of our abilities, ICE seeks to make our
nation secure by preventing terrorism, improving community safety by
ensuring that criminal aliens are not released back into the population, and
strengthening the legal immigration process."
Rosenblood, however, maintains the current system is designed "to
ensure that deportation laws are applied as broadly as possible to those who
are removable, even at the cost of ensnaring U.S. citizens and others with
the right to remain in this country."
"The problem is not so much that this one person was deported, the
problem is that millions of people are being subjected to these systemic
problems that lead to a few cases being public and obvious," she added. "But
everybody who is in immigration detention is dealing with the same
She said in the last decade many of the procedural protections have
been eroded by the introduction of new fast-track removal systems that
increase the potential for U.S. citizens to be deported. Factors such as
mandatory detention, lack of access to counsel, lack of accommodations for
individuals with disabilities and transfers of individuals to detention
centers far away from their homes also contribute to errors within the
Attorney Kara Hartzler of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Project of Arizona, who also testified at the congressional hearing, said
"The intense pressure on ICE to enforce the nation's immigration laws often
leads to the arrest of persons on the basis of race, language, surname or
other factors that are unreliable in determining immigration status."
The Guzman's lawsuit claims a sheriff's custodial assistant
interviewed Guzman "solely on the basis of his perceived race, ethnicity and
Since 2005, the Sheriff's Department has identified inmates who were
eligible for deportation and passed along the information to ICE.
After Guzman was transferred into federal custody, the lawsuit
alleges, he was coerced to sign a form written in Spanish that waived his
legal rights to a deportation hearing and stated that he was a Mexican
Guzman "received no assistance from ICE agents - or anyone else - in
attempting to read or understand" the form, the lawsuit said.
Rosenbloom believes the agency should adopt a formal way of handling
detainees who appear to have valid claims of U.S. citizenship.
"For a person under threat of deportation, there is no right to
government-appointed counsel," she said, adding that access to competent
legal counsel can be critical in citizenship cases.
"Ninety percent of people on immigration detention are
underrepresented by lawyers and kept in places where it's virtually
impossible for them to get any legal assistance," she stated. "They can't
get documents, birth certificates, they don't have access to things or
information they would need to prove their cases, to establish an asylum
case or their right to stay in this country."
She said a recent study reported that seven percent of U.S. citizens
and 12 percent of citizens earning less than 25,000 per year do not have
ready access to proof of their citizenship, such as a U.S. passport,
naturalization papers or a U.S. birth certificate. And as the cases of
Guzman, McKnight and Smith-Willmore show, even those with U.S. birth
certificates on file can end up being removed.
For those who obtained citizenship upon the naturalization of a
parent, the change of error in a removal proceeding is infinitely higher,
Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project encounters on average
between 40 and 50 cases a month of people in immigration detention who have
potentially valid claims to U.S. citizenship, said Atty. Hartzler.
Rosenbloom also cautions that some problems that lead to the removal
of United States citizens can also lead to the wrongful deportation of
lawful permanent citizens. She said the center is also aware of a large
number of cases in which longtime legal residents have been removed on the
basis of criminal convictions that do not actually trigger removal, or
convictions that do not bar discretionary relief.
"Faced with the prospect of lengthy detention and lacking the
financial ability to hire an attorney, many simply concede removability or
let stand a Board of Immigration Appeals decision that could, for a
significant legal fee, have been presented to a federal appeals court for
judicial review," she said.
Last year, in just one detention center, the Florence Immigrant and
Refugee Rights Project assisted 73 permanent residents who were ultimately
found not to be removable despite being charged with removability by ICE.
"The majority lack English skills, have limited formal education and
have no training in immigration law," said Atty. Hartzler. "Nevertheless
they are responsible to enter pleadings, contest charges, gather evidence,
cross-examine witnesses, write motions and briefs, and make legal arguments
before an immigration judge. Many of them are at a disadvantage when trying
to present their cases to judges and opposing counsel who possess years of
experience in immigration law."
She said often immigrants are served with Notices to Appear,
application forms and other documents in English without an accompanying
translation. Also, if the immigration court is not able to obtain an
interpreter for the court, it will not prevent the removal hearing from
In January, Julie Myers, head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement agency, told The New York Times that the United States expects
to deport more than 200,000 immigrants in 2008 who are serving time in
prisons across the country. Last year, ICE sent 276,912 immigrants to their
home countries, including many who had never been arrested for crimes,
according to the same report.
"Once outside of the country, it can be nearly impossible to reopen a
proceeding in which legal error occurred," said Rosenbloom. "There is great
cost to all of us, and our legal system, when the rule of law is undermined
by a system that permits such egregious errors regularly to occur."