Imagine you are a native-born U.S. citizen and, like many spring break-ers before you, you take a short trip to Mexico. Upon returning home, you cross the border by land and present your birth certificate showing that you were born in the United States. You don’t have any photo identification, and you don’t know that they’ve changed the rules to require it. Now, imagine that at the border, the examining agents ask you some questions unrelated to your citizenship, and without corroborating your birth certificate or your identity, conclude that you are not a U.S. citizen. They return you to Mexico, denying you any opportunity to contest their unfounded conclusion or prove your citizenship.
Hard to believe this could happen, right? What about if you aren’t white? Is it easier to believe then? Well, it happened to Guillermo Olivares, 25, a U.S. citizen born in Los Angeles. And it happened to him over and over again.
On as many as five occasions, border agents denied Olivares entry into the U.S. at the Tijuana border crossing when he attempted to come home after he was illegally deported. He even resorted to crossing illegally…but was caught and deported again.
His ordeal began in 2000, when Olivares, then 16 or 17 years old, was returning to the U.S. with a cousin, who did not have papers to enter the U.S. Instead of denying entry to just the cousin, border agents denied entry to Olivares as well, claiming that Olivares wasn’t who he said he was and that his birth certificate was not real. The agents, however, never attempted to corroborate the birth certificate or his identity. Instead, the agents told Olivares he would be detained if he did not admit to being someone else. So Olivares did what any teenager fearful of being locked up would do: he told them his name was Guillermo Romero, a variation of his actual name, Guillermo Olivares Romero, and he was returned to Mexico.
One week later, Olivares’ mother traveled to Tijuana to retrieve her stranded son. The two crossed the border without incident when Olivares’ mother presented border agents a copy of Olivares’ birth certificate, certified by the county registrar.
In 2006, when Olivares was serving time in state prison for probation violations, an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) visited him in prison and informed him that ICE believed he was a citizen of Mexico and planned to deport him. Olivares protested that he was an American citizen. They refused to listen to him, and Olivares, unaware of his rights, felt he had no choice but to say he was Mexican and sign some papers that were never explained to him. In the spring of 2007, ICE deported Olivares to Mexico.
Again Olivares’ mother traveled to Tijuana to retrieve her son. Despite the certified copy of his birth certificate, border agents told Olivares that he was Mexican and sent him back to Tijuana. Frustrated, Olivares went to live with his mother’s family in Jalisco, Mexico.
Over a year later, in June 2008, Olivares’ father became gravely ill. Anxious to see his ailing father, Olivares returned to Tijuana. He and his mother tried multiple times to cross the border with a certified copy of his birth certificate, but again border agents turned him away, insisting that he was lying.
Finally, in August of this year, desperate to see his father before he passed away, Olivares crossed the border illegally. But the agents arrested and deported him again, despite his protests that he was a U.S. citizen. He was deported on September 2, 2008; the day his father died.
A few weeks later, fed up of being denied his fundamental rights as a citizen, Olivares again attempted to cross the border and presented his certified birth certificate. This time Olivares refused to be badgered into signing any papers and demanded to see a judge. Border agents put him into removal proceedings and imprisoned him in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. When the ACLU of Southern California sent the detention center a certified copy of his birth certificate — the same evidence of citizenship that Olivares had presented over and over again — ICE released him.
During the course of Olivares’ odyssey, not once did ICE agents attempt to corroborate his claims to citizenship. They ignored his government issued birth certificate. They dismissed his efforts to provide them his Social Security number. They did not even consult the government’s own criminal records, which would have confirmed that Olivares is a U.S. citizen. Instead, they judged his immigration status on the basis of race on the theory that if he looks “Mexican,” and speaks like a “Mexican,” then he must be Mexican.
This story speaks volumes about an immigration agency that is systematically abusing its power to enforce our nation’s immigration laws. With very few checks on its authority, ICE routinely disregards the constitutional rights of those caught in its enforcement web, including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, often using race as its only evidence of immigration status. Across the country, there are increasing reports of U.S. citizens who have been illegally deported and detained in ICE custody. Such practices will continue so long as ICE can make discriminatory and baseless determinations about a person’s legal status, without affording the procedural protections required by the Constitution.