The troubling case of a 15-year-old U.S. citizen’s wrongful deportation has raised alarm about what immigration agents have long known is a serious problem: increased enforcement has led to the wrongful detention and deportation of U.S. citizens. And young people are at particular risk in a system where detainees have few rights and immigration agents wide discretion.
This week, 15-year-old Dallas native Jakadrien Turner is back home with her joyful family, but last week she was, according to immigration officials, Tika Lanay Cortez, a 22-year-old they had confidently deported to Colombia last April. Turner, who speaks no Spanish, was deported to the South American country after she was arrested for shoplifting in Houston and told officials she was a Colombian woman and identified herself as Cortez.
Cortez, it turned out, was wanted on separate warrants, and even though Turner’s fingerprints didn’t match up with those of the actual Cortez, immigration officials got Colombia to agree to issue the teen travel documents. Turner lived in Colombia for nearly a year, working at a call center until her grandmother’s furious search for her led to the girl’s release and return to the U.S.
The bizarre details of Turner’s case make it uniquely outrageous, but immigration experts insist that the phenomena–of U.S. citizens mistakenly getting deported–is not uncommon. And with the expansion of enforcement programs like Secure Communities absent any increased protections for people facing deportations, U.S. citizens have gotten caught up in the dragnet.
"Part of it is the push for so many deportations, which the Obama administration has ratcheted up," said Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "If the priority is deporting people then there’s less priority on scrutinizing whether someone should be deported."
Aside from the political pressures driving increasingly sloppy enforcement, immigration experts explain that the structural mechanisms of the immigration system facilitate these kinds of terrible oversights.
"One of the major weaknesses is there is no due process," said Maricela Garcia, an expert in how unaccompanied minors navigate the U.S. immigration system and the director of capacity building at the National Council of La Raza. "We place in our democracy a lot of value on due process but most don’t have access to legal representation because they have to pay for it and the government is not going to provide it."
Because immigration violations are technically a civil issue, immigrants in detention have no right to an attorney even though the consequences–deportation–can be much worse than for those facing criminal proceedings. Multiple reports in recent years have found that the bulk of immigrant detainees navigate the labyrinthine immigration system on their own, or are isolated in far-flung detention centers out of reach to legal aid services which are concentrated in urban areas.
Young people become uniquely vulnerable in these situations.
"A lot of children are scared and their age and developmental experience doesn’t allow them to understand what is expected of them or the legal remedies that they might otherwise be eligible for," Garcia said. "Often minors do not know what they are agreeing to or how to present their cases."
In many cases, there is no requirement that detainees see a judge, which only compounds the problem.
"These two massive deficiencies, that you have no lawyer to help advocate for you and no guarantee you can see a judge, mean that very low level ICE agents are in many cases the first and last arbiter of your citizenship claim," said Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Southern California. Too often, he said, immigration agents don’t believe or bother checking people’s stories, even when they might make valid claims of citizenship.
One or both of these checks would certainly have helped someone verify Turner’s actual identity before she got deported, Arulanantham said.
The federal government is clearly aware of the trend, though. In 2009 ICE director John Morton issued a memo providing guidance on how agents should treat detainees who make a claim for citizenship. And just last week ICE announced it would launch a 24-hour hotline for people who thought they’d been wrongfully detained and others to get up-to-date information about their cases.
"The hotline is bleated recognition of the overwhelming evidence that immigration agents are detaining U.S. citizens," Arulanantham said. "Obviously they don’t need a hotline if it’s a one-off problem."
For Turner, this chapter of her story comes to a close, even though basic questions about her case remain unanswered. ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok said in a statement that, "ICE is fully and immediately investigating this matter in order to expeditiously determine the facts of this case."
There is no guarantee that others might not face Turner’s fate in the future.
"As long as we approach every case as a potential deportee and we rob them of opportunities for due process and an opportunity for them to show why they are here, we are more prone to making the horrible mistake of deporting even U.S. citizen children," Garcia said.