Andres Robles Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen, was picked up outside New Orleans in 2007 and transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody for allegedly violating federal civil immigration laws. Despite telling immigration officers several times that he was a U.S. citizen, Robles Gonzalez was placed in deportation proceedings and removed to Mexico in December 2008. In 2011, he was finally allowed to come back to the country, according to a States Without Nations report. Just last month, the federal government agreed to pay $350,000 in damages for wrongly deporting him.
Robles Gonzalez was awarded damages because it’s not legal to deport U.S. citizens. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before. By some estimates, thousands of citizens are deported each year, mostly by accident.
In Robles Gonzalez’s case, immigration officials detained him after he pleaded guilty and was incarcerated for drug and theft charges, according to a Department of Homeland Security memo in support of the motion for partial summary judgement on damages.
When he was detained by ICE officials, Robles Gonzalez twice explained that he was a U.S. citizen. At one point, an ICE officer who entered Robles Gonzalez’s information into a computer showed him a screen with his father’s photograph and other information appearing to be about his dad’s immigration status. But even after the ICE officer discussed Robles Gonzalez’s case with a supervisor, the officer “informed Plaintiff that there was nothing he could do because the supervisor refused to investigate Plaintiff’s claim to U.S. citizenship,” the 2014 complaint stated.
In court documents, ICE officers even noted that Robles Gonzalez’s father was a U.S. citizen. Robles Gonzalez, who came to the United States from Mexico legally in 1996, automatically became a citizen when his father was naturalized in 2002. Still, a judge sustained ICE’s charges and ordered Robles Gonzalez deported to Mexico, his country of origin. Robles Gonzalez was deported sometime around New Years Eve, 2008.
Though he tried “on multiple occasions” to come back to the United States, Robles Gonzalez’s deportation order made him unable to re-enter the United States. A baffling component of his case came when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledged that he derived his U.S. citizenship in 2002, but nonetheless wouldn’t issue him a citizenship certificate because he wouldn’t be able to appear at a USCIS office in the United States on account of his deportation, according to the complaint. Finally, using the USCIS’ “written acknowledgement of his derivative U.S. citizenship,” Robles Gonzalez was able to re-enter the United States, although he was briefly detained again before his removal proceedings were dismissed in September 2011.
By then, Robles Gonzalez’ ordeal spanned a total of 1,055 days.
A 2011 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law study conducted by Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, found that “recent data suggests that in 2010 well over 4,000 U.S. 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. 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 U.S. citizens.” The same report found 82 individuals who “could not be deported because the detainees were U.S. citizens” at an Arizona-based immigration detention center between 2006 and 2008.
Because immigrants do not have a right to an attorney in immigration court, the “lack of procedural safeguards—including no right to appointed counsel—means that even U.S. citizens can end up in immigration detention and be deported. It is a growing problem as more people are being swept up under the nation’s unreasonable detention and deportation practices,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out in another case involving a U.S. citizen who was deported.
Another issue is that immigration judges are unable to keep up with a backlog of 445,706 cases brought on by increased immigration enforcement. A recent American Immigration Council (AIC) report found that by the end of the 2014 fiscal year, immigration judges were assigned to “1,400 ‘matters’ per year on average.” As Laura Murray-Tjan, the director at the Federal Immigration Appeals Project, noted, both immigration judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals “are ill equipped to cope with the avalanche of cases brought on by ever-increasing immigration enforcement. Immigration Judges require more support and better infrastructure. The Board of Immigration Appeals has too few members and is under too much pressure to decide complex cases within tight time frames.”
Among the other deportees are George Ibarra, who was deported twice “over the past 15 years while trying to prove his citizenship,” NPR reported in 2011. Ibarra was born in Mexico, but should have been eligible for “derived citizenship” through his great-grandmother who was born in California. Blanca Maria Alfaro was born in Texas, but moved with her father to El Salvador when she was four. She was stopped in 2013 when officials at New York’s JFK Airport stopped her and “told her that the U.S. passport she carried was not hers.” The officials insisted that she was not from the United States and sent her back to El Salvador. Mark Lyttle, born in North Carolina and deported to Mexico, received $175,000 after a federal district court in Georgia ruled in his favor in 2012.
Under the settlement reached in May with Robles Gonzalez, the United States will pay $315,000 to settle Robles Gonzalez’s claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act and another $35,000 for attorneys’ fees and litigation costs. According to States Without Nations, the U.S. government “agreed to correct Robles’s records of all references to his ‘alienage’ and deportation.”
Robles Gonzalez previously filed a $1.5 million claim for damages and injunctive relief and “to have any mention of his deportation purged from federal databases,” AJE Mexico found last year.
And for him, the ordeal isn’t over. “When they see that I’m Hispanic, I might end up going through the same thing again because my Social Security number is not active. I get worried. It still shows that I’m deported.” As of 2014, Gonzalez still had problems obtaining a Social Security card.