LOS ANGELES (CN) — A longtime permanent legal resident of the United States was deported to Mexico and kept away from his wife and children for six years before immigration officials finally admitted they’d made a mistake and let him return to his family, the man claims in court.
Alejandro Rivera Ramirez came to the United States without inspection in 1981, when he was 16, he says in his federal complaint. He eventually married a U.S. citizen and became a lawful permanent resident in 1991.
In April 2008, he “was deported from the United States to his native Mexico upon reinstatement of a nonexistent removal order, in violation of clearly established law,” he says in the April 11 civil rights lawsuit.
“As a result of his unlawful deportation, plaintiff was separated from his United States citizen wife and three U.S. citizen children for approximately 6 years and until on or about May 30, 2014, causing him to suffer serious injuries.”
Represented by Rita Morales of Manhattan Beach, Rivera sued the United States and six Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, in their personal and official capacities: Charles Boyd, Scott Nebeker, Floyd Cleveland, Neil E. Brady, Jason Kirk and Jerry Combs.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an email that “agency policy precludes us from commenting on pending litigation.” A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles also declined to comment.
Attorney Morales and several immigration experts said cases of legal residents — and even lifelong U.S. citizens — being wrongly deported are far from rare. Some fear such errors will increase as President Trump’s administration ramps up immigration enforcement.
“It’s not that unusual. You have these cases all the time,” said Daniel T. Huang, chairman of Los Angeles County Bar Association’s immigration section. “We would imagine there would be more of these coming.”
Morales says she expects to see more such cases “for reasons that are obvious to most of us.”
San Diego immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs noted that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced stepped-up immigration enforcement just this week, in Nogales, Arizona. “This is the Trump era,” Sessions told reporters in the border city.
Researchers and news stories have been reporting instances of U.S. citizens being deported or held in custody long before the current administration. A 2011 study by a Northwestern University political scientist found that “the United States has been misclassifying its own citizens as aliens and deporting them for over 100 years.”
The researcher found that from 2007 through July 2016, some 818 citizens were held in immigration detention centers, according to a December report from National Public Radio.
One case that drew widespread attention was that of a mentally impaired citizen from North Carolina deported to Mexico, although he had never been there and didn’t speak Spanish. Other citizens claiming wrongful deportation have filed suit in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Hartford, Conn., Chicago and Washington, D.C., among others.
University of Southern California Gould School of Law professor Niels Frenzen said his immigration clinic students represent a man who is a naturalized U.S. citizen yet has been deported several times.
Frenzen said he believes instances of citizens or green card holders being deported are uncommon. “But — and this is an important but — the Trump administration is radically expanding the expedited removal process,” he said.
That process allows individual ICE and Border Patrol agents to order the immediate deportation of someone with forged documents or who entered the country illegally. Though it does not apply to citizens or permanent residents, the accelerated process could present “more opportunity for mistakes to occur,” Frenzen said.
Morales said she has another client with a green card who was deported for six months before he could win readmission. She expects to file a lawsuit for him as soon as next month.
But Rivera’s case is different, she said. “What’s unusual about this particular case is that it took them six years to figure it out.”
According to his lawsuit, Rivera applied to have his Lawful Permanent Resident card — his green card — renewed in the spring of 2008. Immigration officers instead took him into custody, denied him an attorney and eventually sent him to San Diego, where “unknown officers ‘reinstated’ a nonexistent prior removal order and executed such unlawful order upon plaintiff by removing him to Mexico.” He was never given a removal hearing before an immigration judge, according to his lawsuit.
Rivera tried to come back that September, but he “was further charged with having been convicted of an aggravated felony and barred for life from the United States,” he says. He adds: “Plaintiff has never been convicted of an aggravated felony. Plaintiff did not willfully misrepresent his immigration status as he was in fact a lawful permanent resident.”
It wasn’t until May 30, 2014, “after review of available documents and months of communications with various personnel of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by plaintiff’s immigration attorney,” that the department admitted “that his initial deportation was wrongful, that no order for his deportation ever existed” and that he could return to the United States, Rivera says in the 15-page complaint.
Another unusual feature of this case turned up — or didn’t turn up — when Rivera’s immigration attorney filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see his immigration records. No materials concerning the April 2008 deportation came back.
“All the pages were blank,” Morales said. “There was nothing in the FOIA file with regard to the April deportation.”
Relying on the Federal Tort Claims Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 Bivens decision, Ramirez seeks compensatory and punitive damages for false imprisonment, negligence, emotional distress and constitutional violations.
Morales is with the Miranda Morales law firm.