The government is not shy about its success deporting people from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently sent out videos of early-morning raids conducted across the country. Uniformed ICE agents are shown planning to capture suspects, followed by shots of the suspects being handcuffed and put into vehicles.
A record 396,000 people were deported from the country during the federal fiscal year that just ended. Some were caught in raids, while others were detained by ICE after being arrested by local police. But Northwestern University political science professor Jacqueline Stevens says some of those held weren't illegal immigrants at all.
"I think it's pretty fair to say that there's a low but persistent rate of people who are being held by ICE in violation of the law, who are U.S. citizens," Stevens says.
Mark Lyttle was deported to Mexico in 2008. Lyttle, who has a history of mental illness, gave ICE agents conflicting stories, telling them that he was a U.S. citizen and also that he was a Mexican to avoid an argument.
ICE apparently ignored records that he was born in North Carolina, and had no relatives in Mexico. Eventually Lyttle returned to the U.S.
Earlier this year, the government admitted another deported man named Andres Robles was a citizen.
They sent Robles a letter, with an odd offer.
The letter said the government was prepared to issue a certificate of U.S. citizenship to Robles, but said he would have to pick it up, adding that it realized it wouldn't be possible for him to do because he was deported.
The case of a Phoenix man, George Ibarra, isn't so clear-cut. He's been deported twice over the last 15-years while trying to prove his citizenship.
"I'm up against a big old juggernaut," Ibarra says. "You know, a bureaucratic juggernaut that just doesn't want to let go, you know they just keep wanting to stick it to me."
Ibarra was being held in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix for shooting a gun into the air, he says, in frustration.
"I've been just sitting there in my house going crazy man," Ibarra says. "My lawyer told me I can't do nothing can't go to work till this thing's over."
Ibarra was a Marine. He has the Marine insignia—the eagle, anchor and globe—tattooed on his chest. He suffers from PTSD after being wounded in the first Gulf War. Ibarra grew up in Phoenix. What he didn't know was that his mother was born just over the border in Nogales, Mexico. That's where Ibarra was born. His mother brought him to Arizona when he was a baby and the fact that his mother has lived in the U.S. for decades and that his grandfather was born in Arizona should make Ibarra eligible for what's called "derived citizenship".
"He never knew about this legal right to citizenship through his grandfather and his mother," says Luis Parra, Ibarra's lawyer. "He never knew about that."
Like many caught in ICE detention, Ibarra was ignorant of the law. The first time he was picked up, he faced nine months in the detention center in Florence, Arizona. That's when he made a mistake — when ICE said he could get out early if he voluntarily deported himself. He said yes.
"They put me on a bus and shipped me to Mexico," Ibarra says. "I was in Mexico. I was like, 'Where do I go? What do I do?'"
He turned right around with his military ID and driver's license and came back through the Nogales Port of Entry. Then he got into trouble with the local police again—a drug use charge. But now he had a deportation on his record, calling into question his claim to citizenship. But faced with another long stint in detention he volunteered to be deported a second time.
"He made some mistakes, that's for sure," Parra says.
After getting Parra as a lawyer, an immigration judge looked at the evidence and ruled that George Ibarra does have a right to citizenship. But ICE has appealed that ruling.
"Why hasn't it stopped?" Parra asks. "Despite the fact that he's a veteran and despite the fact that he's a fourth-generation American?"
We asked ICE for an interview, but a spokesperson said the agency doesn't comment on specific cases because of privacy concerns. The government denies that it holds U.S. citizens in immigration detention.
But Northwestern University professor Jacqueline Stevens says government policy allows people with a credible claim to citizenship to remain free while their status is determined. Stevens says the way deportation proceedings are conducted causes problems. Unlike criminal courts—immigration courts have few checks.
"I've never seen an ICE agent who filed an arrest report appear in an immigration proceeding," Stevens says. "Not once and I've watched literally hundreds of these cases and not once do they have to go to court to be interrogated by a judge about the accuracy of the information that's presented."
Stevens looked at about 8,000 cases in just two immigration detention facilities. She found that about one percent of the time, people were eventually let go because they were U.S. citizens. However, that meant the citizens were held between one week and four years in detention.
Stevens says that when members of Congress here the figure is one percent, they think it's not bad.
"However, if we think about the magnitude of our deportation process, that means that thousands of U.S. citizens each year and tens of thousands in the course of a decade will be detained for substantial periods of time in absolute violation of the law and their civil rights," she says.
In other words, in the rush to deport record numbers of illegal immigrants, the government may also be deporting people who aren't illegal immigrants at all.