HOUSTON (CN) – Immigration officials deported a 14-year-old U.S. citizen to Columbia, where she spent seven months sleeping in homeless shelters, the girl and her mother claim in Federal Court.
Johnisa Turner sued the United States of America, Attorney General Eric Holder, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and unidentified immigration officials and agents “ICE Does,” on behalf of her now-15-year-old daughter, JT.
JT’s sad tale began when a “child predator” lured her away from Dallas home, put her on a Greyhound bus to Houston and “began exploiting her, including but not limited to giving her drugs and forcing her to sell them,” her mother says in the complaint.
“When JT went missing, Johnisa Turner immediately reported her disappearance to the Dallas Police Department. She also listed JT as a runaway with the National Child Runaway list,” the complaint states.
Turner says the predator physically and sexually abused her daughter, who ran away from him at her first chance.
“She began to try and make her way back to Dallas and back to her family. JT was conflicted by feelings of shame and guilt associated with the untoward activities that she had unwillingly participated in,” according to the complaint. “She wasn’t sure if her family would blame her or if she could possibly be arrested. She was unaware that she was the victim. JT believed that her mother would be angry with her. She had no idea that her family had been looking for her and wanting her home since the day that she was forced to leave Dallas.”
Turner says that JT tried to earn money to return home but, hungry and sleeping at the bus station, she started shoplifting and was arrested on April 2, 2011 at Greenspoint Mall in Houston. She was taken to a Houston city jail to await arraignment.
“JT was afraid and unsure whether or not law enforcement had any information about the illegal activities that she had participated in while being held by the man who had trafficked her to Houston. Therefore when questioned about her identity, JT
gave officers a false name,” according to the complaint.
“JT told officers at the Mykawa substation that her name was Tika Cortez. She did not present any form of tangible identification. Unbeknownst to her, Tika Cortez came up in their system as a 22-year-old Colombian national. Upon information and belief, this 22-year-Columbian national was either wanted by Colombian officials or flagged as being in the United States illegally. JT was booked and transported to the Harris County Jail on Baker St. in Harris County to await her initial court appearance.
“She was charged with theft and jailed under the name Tika Cortez. …”
Turner says her daughter was assigned a court-appointed attorney, who advised her to plead guilty, though he was “well aware she had an immigration hold.” She says the assistant district attorney set a high $35,000 bond “because of JT’s aka Tika Cortez’s immigration status.”
The mother adds: “There were no discovery requests, no calls to the arresting officers for more information and most importantly, there was no conversation with JT regarding the ramifications of a guilty plea.”
After completing her eight-day sentence, Turner says, her daughter was taken to the Houston ICE Detention Center.
“Once she arrived at the Houston ICE Detention Center on April 18, 2011, JT faced a removal proceeding despite the fact that she was 14 years old and her physical
appearance was commensurate with her age,” according to the complaint. “She spoke no Spanish and knew nothing about Colombia and she did not appear to be of Colombian heritage.
“She did not have counsel and ultimately waived her right to an appeal again not knowing how to navigate the legal process on her own. JT remained in ICE custody for more than 30 days. Knowing it’s commonplace for people who come in contact with ICE officials to sometimes give a fake name in order to avoid more serious punishment, it is still unclear why ICE officials failed to confirm JT’s identity with fingerprint analysis, genetically specific markers that suggest a person’s origin, or other methods more definitive than just having a name and no documentation proof of her alleged Colombian citizenship during these hearings. Upon information and belief, ICE officials failed to consult any sources to verify JT’s, the alleged alien’s, identity. ICE officials failed to talk with any family members or check the Non-Immigrant Information System (NIIS) for entry information and passport number. Nor did they contact the International Criminal Police. ICE officials also failed to use the Secure Communities, a program that requires local police to submit the fingerprints of anyone booked into local jails with federal authorities, including immigration officials to make sure the right person is being subjected to removal hearings and possible deportation.”
ICE agents told JT she could bond out pending her removal proceeding and she called people she knew in the Houston area trying to raise money for the bond, her mother says.
“She told several ICE officials her real name and that she was from Dallas, Texas but ICE officials did not believe her,” the complaint states. “JT was afraid to call her family and could not find the words to explain that she was in ICE custody and facing deportation. She did not believe that her family would believe that to be even possible. On May 23, 2011, 14-year-old JT was shackled in a van with other
deportees and transported to a location where she boarded a government plane and was deported to Bogotá, Colombia.”
ICE officials dispute JT’s version of the story.
“ICE has found no evidence to substantiate the claims by Miss Turner that she tried to give her real identity to ICE officials,” ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement. “To date, our review into this matter has revealed that Miss Turner consistently used a false identity with her dealings with the Houston police, her defense attorney, ICE, the immigration court and the Colombian government. She continued to maintain this false identity as reflected in her social media postings for six months while in Colombia, never claiming to be a United States citizen.
“After being arrested on state charges for theft by the Houston Police Department, the minor provided a false identity, representing that she was an adult from Colombia with no legal status in the U.S. She maintained this false identity throughout her local criminal proceedings in Texas, where she was represented by a defense attorney and ultimately convicted by the state criminal court. At no time during these criminal proceedings was her identity determined to be false. Upon her conviction, she was referred to ICE where she continued to maintain a false identity during immigration court proceedings.
“As is standard protocol, criminal database searches and biometric verification were conducted and revealed no information to invalidate her claims. She was ultimately ordered removed from the U.S. by a Department of Justice immigration judge.”
JT’s mother says in her complaint that when her daughter arrived in Bogotá, a stranger saw her crying and guided her to a social welfare program called “Welcome Home” that helped her find a shelter.
“JT began working in Bogotá and supporting herself with the help of the Welcome Home program. She lived in a group home setting and was trained and paid to
work at a call center,” her mother say in the complaint. “A portion of her earnings were used to pay for her room and board. JT remained in fear that it would be discovered that she was an American citizen and had been mistakenly deported. She was afraid that she would be jailed in Colombia and never see her family again. Faced with the reality of remaining in Colombia for the foreseeable future, JT began to try and adjust to life there and continue to fend for herself.
“In September, 2011, JT became pregnant by a 29-year-old man and was removed from the Welcome Home Program. She was moved to another facility. She did not receive any medical attention for her pregnancy while in Bogotá. She continued to work and pay to reside in group home setting designed for unwed mothers. She began to learn Spanish and resigned herself to being in a foreign country with no friends or family.”
The complaint continues: “JT remained in Colombia for approximately seven (7) months. During that period, her family looked for her tirelessly. Sometime in December 2011, JT’s grandmother Lorene Turner, found information that led her to believe that JT had been deported to Colombia. She immediately contacted the Dallas Police Department, who in turn contacted the State Department. It was confirmed that JT had been wrongfully deported to Colombia.
“After attempting to get JT home for a few months with no success, the family turned to the media to get JT home. Only after, the media featured a story on an
American teen-ager wrongfully deported to Colombia did anyone from the United States government make bringing (JT) home a priority. Within a matter of days, she was finally flown from Bogotá, Colombia to Dallas, Texas to be reunited with her family after almost a year of horrible occurrences, most of which could have been avoided. Her life will never be the same again.”
The mother and daughter seek damages for civil rights violations, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In addition to the aforementioned defendants the Turners sued Chief Immigration Judge Juan Osuna; ICE Director John Morton; James Hayes, director of ICE’s Office of Detention and Removal Proceedings; and Kenneth Landgrebe, director of Houston’s ICE office.
The Turners are represented by Ray Jackson of Dallas and Chanae Connell of Houston, who did not return phone calls Thursday afternoon.
ICE spokeswoman Christensen said in the statement that the agency has instituted new policies to avoid wrongful deportations.
“Last week ICE announced new measures to ensure that individuals being held by state or local law enforcement on immigration detainers are properly notified about their potential removal from the country and are made aware of their rights,” Christensen said in the statement.
The measures include a new detainer form and 24-hour toll free hotline “that detained individuals can call if they believe they may be U.S. citizens or victims of a crime,” Christensen said.