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Ignorance, Bureaucracy and Red Tape: U.S. Citizens Mistakenly Deported

by Christopher Zoukis

According to Bryan Cox, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “claims of U.S. citizenship of individuals encountered by ICE officers, agents, and attorneys are immediately and carefully investigated and analyzed.” However, the United States has a long history of mistakenly deporting its own citizens; since 2003, more than 20,000 U.S. citizens have been detained or deported by immigration officials. [See: PLN, March 2013, p.40].

Consider the case of Andres Robles Gonzalez, who was deported to Mexico at age 19 despite the fact that he was an American citizen. For over three years he tried to convince authorities of his citizenship. Eventually, the evidence to support his claim was found in an unusual place: the U.S. government’s own records.

Armed with that information, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued Gonzalez a certificate of citizenship. Problem solved? Not quite. Despite acknowledging his citizenship and issuing the certificate, USCIS could not provide that evidence to Gonzalez because he had already been deported.

Jonathan Crawford, the New Orleans-based field director for USCIS, nicely summed up this Catch-22 when he told Gonzalez, “Your N-600 Application for a Certificate of Citizenship was approved on June 15, 20011 [sic]. You derive [sic] citizenship on June 13, 2002, when your father became a naturalized citizen of the United States. However, since you were deported from the United States, we are unable to complete the N-600 application process and provide you with a certificate of citizenship.”

Helpfully, Crawford advised Gonzalez to report to a USCIS office for assistance in obtaining his certificate once he returned to the United States. But the red tape was just too thick. A vice counsel in the U.S. Department of State refused to provide Gonzalez with a passport because “[i]t does not appear that you have a claim to U.S. citizenship.” Thus, Gonzalez could not return to the U.S. to obtain proof of his citizenship since he could not secure a U.S. passport – because he lacked proof he was an American citizen.

Fortunately for Gonzalez, attorneys were able to circumnavigate the system and finally establish his citizenship. But had he been indigent and unable to access competent legal help, he could have been deported permanently.

This exposes a major flaw in the immigration system: people do not have the right to an attorney, which disproportionately affects indigent people because they lack sufficient legal representation to help them prove their U.S. citizenship. Gonzalez eventually sued the federal government, discovering during the litigation that ICE was aware of its mistakes yet failed to correct them. The United States agreed to update its records pertaining to Gonzalez’s citizenship and paid him $350,000 in damages in May 2015. See: Gonzalez v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00696-CJB-JCW.

Immigration and deportation issues are doubly problematic for the incarcerated and those with a criminal record. For example, Lorenzo Palma, 39, was not released from prison after he finished serving his five-and-half-year sentence in Texas for aggravated assault. ICE ordered prison officials to hold him for another year, then he was transferred to an immigration detention center where he was held for six months. Although he was a naturalized U.S. citizen, Palma feared being deported to Mexico because his younger brother, a U.S. citizen, had previously been erroneously deported. Palma was fortunate in that the U.S. government eventually acknowledged his citizenship status in January 2016 and he was released.

Similarly, soon after President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, a nationwide immigration enforcement operation ensued. Elizabeth Hernandez-Carrillo, a 46-year-old mother of four, was arrested in her home during a raid and detained for a month. She noted that the detention center held her in a “small cell infested with cockroaches [where she] got dehydrated, contracted a bladder infection and desperately missed her family.” Hernandez-Carrillo was a U.S. citizen; she had previously returned to the U.S. after “being deported to Mexico in 2004 following a felony marijuana trafficking conviction,” despite her efforts to inform ICE of her U.S. citizenship status. Her case highlighted the complexity, especially under the current presidential administration and its new policies, of proving one’s citizenship status.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University and director of the school’s Deportation Research Clinic, noted in a 2011 report that “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 U.S. citizens.” After filing a Freedom of Information Act request, Stevens exposed records from U.S. immigration courts that indicated the adjournment of 256 cases between January 2011 and September 2014 was due to the high volume of findings “that the presumed ‘aliens’ were actually U.S. citizens.”

Navigating the waters of our nation’s immigration system can be treacherous as errors are surprisingly common. According to Stevens, the possibility of mistakes is high because “[u]nless you have an unusually thorough immigration judge, which is very rare, or an attorney, you can be a U.S. citizen and not even know you’re a U.S. citizen, and abandon claims to be in the United States.” There is no single method to verify citizenship, and the process to prove one’s citizenship status is often complicated by the “constantly evolving laws that determine an individual’s eligibility,” Stevens said.

The complex process to validate citizenship status has had significant repercussions for U.S. citizens who are incorrectly detained or deported due to errors by government officials. One of the more notorious errors occurred in 2011, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained a four-year-old girl for 20 hours in a cell without bedding at Dulles Airport in Virginia, then deported her to Guatemala. Although her parents hired an attorney and their daughter was returned to the United States within three weeks, the four-year-old began to show stress-related symptoms. “She began to overeat, throw tantrums, and soil her pants during the day,” according to a lawsuit filed by her parents. “She hid whenever people knocked on the door, she refused to let go of her father’s hand, and she became frightened whenever the lights were off at night.” The federal government agreed to settle the case for $32,500 in June 2015. See: Ruiz v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Vir.), Case No. 1:14-cv-01246-GBL-JFA.

However, monetary damages cannot make up for what the family went through due to the wrongful deportation – which, sadly, was one of many due to the incompetence of immigration authorities. 

Sources:,,,, USA Today,

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