Mary Sanchez: How broken is our immigration system? We deport citizens


Mary Sanchez is a columnist with the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)

The deportation of Andres Robles Gonzalez was a bureaucratic nightmare at every turn.

The 25-year-old Louisianan spent nearly three years trapped in Mexico because the U.S. government wouldn’t recognize him for what he is: a U.S. citizen. Not only was Robles wrongly sent packing across the southern border; he was blocked in his attempts to rectify his situation because the government kept reverting back to the initial mistake.

He’s not the only U.S. citizen who has been deported. Some advocates suspect that thousands of others have been deported in the last decade, including mentally and physically ill citizens.

Robles was born in Mexico. His family legally immigrated as permanent legal residents — green card holders — when he was 6 years old. When he was nearly 13, his father was naturalized. The action of the father becoming a citizen gave the son his citizenship, too.

Fast forward a few years. Robles is a troubled teenager in the New Orleans area. He winds up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sights due to theft and drug charges. ICE agents assume he is a foreigner.

According to a lawsuit filed on his behalf, Robles told officials repeatedly that he was a U.S. citizen, and they refused to believe him. ICE agents even consulted their own records, which showed a photo of his father and indicate his father’s citizenship.

Incompetent attorneys who initially represented Robles in immigration proceedings were no help to him. He was deported in late December 2008.

His family tried to appeal his case on both sides of the border to no avail. In one letter to an attorney trying to straighten things out, an immigration official agreed that Robles was a citizen but said that because the government had deported him, they couldn’t complete his request for proof of that citizenship. He advised that Robles should schedule an appointment when he returned from Mexico.

He couldn’t return, though, as consul offices refused to issue him a passport because he’d been deported.

In early May, the government settled the case, admitting no errors, and awarded Robles $350,000.

It would be easy to chalk this story up to the arrogant, lax actions of a few immigration agents who refused to believe their agency’s own database and assumed that this young man couldn’t possibly be telling the truth.

What happened to Robles is an indictment of an immigration bureaucracy that is simultaneously overwhelmed and underfunded, too often operating under orders that are contrary to the interests of the United States and unjust to the people who fall into their hands.

Jacqueline Stevens, who heads the Deportation Research Clinic at Northwestern University and has done much to publicize Robles’ case, argues based on interviews within detention centers, attorney records and other data that as many as 20,000 U.S. citizens have been detained since 2003, with thousands deported.

But no one really knows. That fact alone is troubling.

What is undeniable is that in recent years, pressure has grown to deport huge numbers of people to satisfy conservatives. Overhauling our system to function more efficiently, more fairly, receives far less attention. Backlogs in immigration courts, like the one through which Robles passed, are at an all-time high; with more than 445,000 cases pending.

Officials are training and hiring more judges to lighten the caseloads, but Congress has stalled on approving the funding. That’s hardly a shock, as even bipartisan plans for immigration reform have been stalled by opponents in Congress. And now, Obama’s executive actions on immigration, intended to maneuver around congressional obstruction, are stuck in court appeals.

No wonder then, that a chain of complications sent a U.S. citizen across the border and then kept him there until advocates took up his case. Robles got lucky when his family found competent help.

Many others, sad to say, haven’t and won’t fare so well.

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