Jailed without justice in immigration court

Oct. 10, 2013 @ 08:08 AM

We as Americans know when a person is arrested and jailed in our country he or she has the right to a lawyer regardless of ability to pay.
Here’s the thing, though: People -- including American citizens -- who are jailed on immigration violations do not have those same rights.
An immigration lawyer sure would have been helpful in the case of North Carolinian Mark Lyttle, a mentally ill native of Rowan County who was deported twice to Mexico in 2008. In another absurd situation, a man (finally determined to be a U.S. citizen by birthright) whose father is a U.S. citizen was deported at least four times based on a non-existent passage in the Mexican constitution.
Yes. As crazy as it sounds, American citizens get jailed and deported. Regularly.
According to immigration lawyer Kara Hartzler’s 2008 testimony in front of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Immigration, her Arizona nonprofit sees between 40 and 50 cases per month of people in immigration detention who have potentially valid claims to U.S. citizenship.
“These individuals will commonly be detained for weeks, months, and even years while attempting to prove their citizenship. While some are ultimately successful, others often abandon their cases in the face of what can feel like indefinite detention,” Hartzler states.
If we treat Americans this way, how could it possibly be fair for other non-citizens who might have other legitimate immigration remedies?
Three years ago, when Armando Cruz was 16 years old, his father was deported to Mexico. His mother and younger siblings soon followed even though the children were born in the United States, just like Cruz.
Cruz’ story was told by McClatchy Newspapers reporter Franco Ordoñez as part of a compelling series of articles about young people making difficult decisions because of a confounding U.S. immigration system.
In an email, Armando explained to me what he understood happened in his father’s case:
“[M]y father did not have a lawyer, he was sent to jail for three days and then immediately afterwards he was sent to a detention center in Georgia. My mom tried to consult a lawyer to try and get my dad a court date… but he was moved to Georgia before she could do anything.”
Now we’ll never know whether Armando’s dad and could have been eligible for any kind of immigration relief. We’ll never know if a lawyer who is trained in the thousands of pages of immigration laws and policies might have made a difference -- for the Cruz family and the tens of thousands like them.
Again, this isn’t just a stab in the dark, hope against hope for legalization, either. If Hartzler’s experiences screening those in detention are true, a good number of individuals are likely eligible to stay in the United States legally.
Yet people too rarely find an advocate to force action. Something like 90 percent of detained immigrants cannot afford an attorney, according to Hartzler’s testimony. Immigration judges often hear a dozen cases at a time without the time to consider individual circumstances. And a judge is often limited in how she can consider facts, such as whether someone was a victim of a crime, is a veteran or has been mistreated by an employer.
These deportations destroy families. Almost one-quarter of people removed from the United States are mothers or fathers of U.S. citizen children. That means about 88,000 immigrants were separated from their U.S. citizen children in 2012 alone.
In the article, Armando’s mother heartbreakingly recounts a telephone call with her son the day he graduated from high school.
“I want you to be here,” he said. “I want to be there.”
She told her son how proud she was. How she missed him every day.
“Mijo, we can’t be there,” she recalled. “It’s impossible. He was crying. ‘Mommy, I miss you.’ We miss you. We’re so proud of you.”
So many families like Armando’s are divided simply because our immigration rules don’t make any sense.
It’s time to change the laws to better reflect our nation’s values, including a justice system that sees and hears even those who cannot afford an attorney.

Jessica Rocha is a paralegal in the Immigrant Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.