Late one evening in Dallas, Texas, Ricardo Garza was pulled over for driving while intoxicated. Although he told the police officers that he could prove he was a citizen despite having been born in Mexico, the jail called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Immigration officials told officers that he was only a US resident whose criminal history made him eligible for deportation.
ICE then placed a detainer (or a request to hold in jail) on Garza.
"Mr. Garza had his social security card and driver's license on him when he was arrested," Eric Puente, an immigration attorney who works in Dallas, said of Garza’s case. "Had ICE done their due diligence and listened to him when he said an immigration judge ruled he was a US citizen in 1999, and had they looked at their own records, they should have known he was a citizen."
Despite laws that make it illegal for ICE to detain or deport any American citizen, these mistakes happen more often than anyone would care to admit.
Jacqueline Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University who directs the school's Deportation Research Clinic, did extensive research on the subject and found statistics that will raise questions among even the most conservative of us.
"Recent data suggests that in 2010 well over 4,000 US citizens were detained or deported as aliens, raising the total since 2003 to more than 20,000, a figure that may strike some as so high as to lack credibility," Stevens wrote in her 2011 report. "But the deportation laws and regulations in place since the late 1980s have been mandating detention and deportation for hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people each year without attorneys or, in many cases, administrative hearings. It would be truly shocking if this did not result in the deportation of US citizens."
How can the government make these mistaken deportations so often?
It could be one of two big reasons: there are so many different (and changing) ways that one can prove and establish citizenship, it can be next to impossible to prove citizenship in a timely and effective manner. That, and officials, already under a lot of pressure to get through an enormous caseload as quickly as possible, can easily overlook critical facts that would establish citizenship.
"Unless you have an unusually thorough immigration judge, which is very rare, or an attorney, you can be a US citizen and not even know you're a US citizen, and abandon claims to be in the United States," said Stevens.
While the U.S. immigrations court has recognized some of their errors (adjourning a mere 256 cases between January 2011 and September 2014), the confusing and ever-changing laws surrounding citizenship and immigration make this a mistake bound to happen again and again—especially when the time crunch on these cases is factored in.
That’s not even the worst part: according to the law as it stands today, those that are detained for deportation do not have the right to an attorney. That means that if they are unable to find one, they could easily slip through the cracks and wind up in a country they have no real knowledge of based on faulty information and serious oversights.
"What if Mr. Garza had been indigent and wasn't able to hire an attorney to be able to go to immigration court? The problem is, in the immigration system, you don't have a right to an attorney," Puente noted. "The system is extremely overburdened. There aren't enough checks and balances. An indigent person may not have the resources to hire a lawyer, and then falls through the cracks. Here at the grassroots level we've seen US citizens be deported completely and later on be allowed to come back in the country when ICE realized it was a mistake."
With presidential front-runners like Donald Trump, these mistakes will only get worse. While many in the GOP point to more restrictions and deportations as a solution to an “immigration problem,” their approach to the issue will only make matters worse until just about anyone could be deported.
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