Born In The U.S. But Turned Back At The Border, Time After Time | KUOW News and Information

Born In The U.S. But Turned Back At The Border, Time After Time

Dec 12, 2014
Originally published on December 12, 2014 12:35 pm

Maria Isabel de la Paz is a 30-year-old Houstonian who works at a Chick-fil-A. She holds the distinction of being a U.S. citizen who was prevented for a dozen years from entering the United States.

Her case is at the heart of what immigrant advocates say is wrong with U.S. immigration enforcement — that deportations are increasingly being handled by federal agents at the border, rather than in immigration court. The practice is not necessarily illegal, but critics say it is fundamentally unfair.

De la Paz was born in the U.S. But when she was 4 months old, she says, her parents — who were both in Texas illegally — took her back to their home in Michoacan, Mexico. And that's where she grew up.

Twice, de la Paz tried lawfully to enter the U.S. port of entry at Brownsville, Texas, with her Texas birth certificate in hand. Both times, agents said the document was false and sent her back. So earlier this year, she decided to cross the river illegally to join her mother, who was again living in Houston. She got caught.

"When the agent questioned me, I said I was born in Houston," de la Paz says. "He smiled. He asked, 'Why are you crossing this way?' I said, 'It's because you won't accept my birth certificate.'

"He asked, 'If you're a citizen, why can't you speak English?' I said my parents took me to Mexico when I was an infant, and I've been trying to return ever since. Then, he just laughed at me."

De la Paz's mother hired an immigration attorney, who was able to convince the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City that Maria was, indeed, an American by birth. She finally got her U.S. passport last summer.

De la Paz's lawyer, Jaime Diez, says Maria should have been given a chance to make her case to an immigration judge, but she wasn't. And her case is not all that uncommon on the border, Diez says.

"Unfortunately it is not. Cases like hers are more common every day," he says. "We have given a lot of power to agents at ports of entry, CBP [Customs and Border Protection]. There's something wrong with an officer being able to take away someone's citizenship, throw them into Mexico and close the case."

Diez represents more than 50 clients who are U.S. citizens who were born via midwives in Texas and cannot obtain passports. Some have been refused re-entry. Immigration agents are suspicious of birth certificates issued by midwives because of fraud in the past.

This month, the American Civil Liberties Union released a lengthy report focused on these summary deportations. The ACLU calculates that 83 percent of all removals last year were handled by immigration enforcement officers, without formal review. Most of them took place at the border.

Sarah Mehta, a human rights researcher at the ACLU and author of the report, says she thinks "there's a problem with the assumption that just because you're at the border, you're in an area where people don't have rights."

In its defense, the Department of Homeland Security wrote in an email, "Individuals in DHS custody maintain important rights and due process protections throughout the course of their proceedings. An individual may be removed from the U.S. only after any claims for relief from removal, including asylum, are fully evaluated."

Immigrant advocates counter that noncitizens' claims to enter this country can only be fully evaluated by an immigration court employee, not a uniformed agent.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're taking a closer look this morning at one of the contentious parts of the immigration debate - the high numbers of deportations that have taken place under the Obama administration. Immigration officers are now removing more people from the country and at a faster rate than ever before. One feature of these deportations is that they are increasingly being handled by federal agents at the border and not in immigration court. As NPR's John Burnett reports, this is not necessarily illegal, but critics say it's fundamentally unfair.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Maria Isabel de la Paz is a 30-year-old Houstonian who works at a Chick-fil-A and holds the distinction of being a U.S. citizen who was prevented for a dozen years from entering the United States. Her case is at the heart of what immigrant advocates say is wrong with U.S. immigration enforcement.

MARIA ISABEL DE LA PAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Maria says when she were four months old her parents, who were both in Texas illegally, took her back to their home in Michoacan, Mexico, and that's where she grew up. Twice Maria tried lawfully to enter the U.S. Port of Entry at Brownsville with her Texas birth certificate in hand. Both times agents said the document was false and sent her back. So earlier this year she decided to cross the river illegally to join her mother in Houston - she got caught.

DE LA PAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: When the agent questioned me, she says, I said I was born in Houston. He smiled. He asked why are you crossing this way? I said it's because agents won't accept my birth certificate. He asked if you're a citizen why can't you speak English? I said my parents took me to Mexico when I was an infant and I've been trying to return ever since. Then he just laughed at me.

DE LA PAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Her mother hired an immigration attorney who was able to convince the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City that Maria was indeed an American by birth. She finally got her U.S. passport last summer.

I'm here in a little park in Brownsville, Texas, on the levy overlooking the tree-lined Rio Grande. Matamoros, Mexico, is directly across the river. I'm standing with Jaime Diaz, the lawyer for Maria de la Paz. And, Mr. Diaz, you say her case is not all that uncommon here on the border.

JAIME DIAZ: You know, unfortunately it is not. Cases like her are more common every day. We have given a lot of power to people at the ports of entry - at the, you know, CDP. There is something wrong with an officer being able to take away somebody's citizenship, throw them to Mexico and close the case.

BURNETT: Jaime Diaz says Maria should have been given a chance to make her case to an immigration judge, but she wasn't. He represents more than 50 clients who were U.S. citizens who were born to midwives in Texas and cannot obtain passports. Some have been refused reentry. Immigration agents are suspicious of false birth certificates issued by midwives because of fraud in the past. Last week the American Civil Liberties Union released a lengthy report focused on these summary deportations. It calculates that 83 percent of all removals last year were handled by immigration enforcement officers without formal review. Most of them took place at the border. Sarah Mehta is a human rights researcher at the ACLU and author of the report.

SARAH MEHTA: I think there is a problem with this assumption that just because you're in the border that you're in an area where people don't have rights.

BURNETT: In its defense, the Department of Homeland Security wrote in an email individuals and DHS custody maintain important rights and due process protections throughout the course of their proceedings. An individual may be removed from the U.S. only after any claims for relief, including asylum, are fully evaluated.

Immigrant advocates countered that when a non-citizen makes a claim to enter this country it can only be fully evaluated by an immigration court employee, not a uniformed. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.