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June 20, 2023

Democrats call for due process for the ‘unjustly deported’

Credit: The Hill

A group of Democrats is pushing the Biden administration to overhaul the process for deported people to appeal their cases, calling the current mechanisms “ineffective and insufficient.”

The Democrats, led by Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.) Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.) and David Trone (Md.), called Tuesday on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to create a centralized office to process deportation appeals.

U.S. laws allow the deported to make their case to return to the country, but the processes to get an appeal heard can be convoluted.

“As you know, these processes can include a deported person filing a petition for review, a motion to reopen their case, or even applying for lawful status while abroad after they have been deported,” wrote the lawmakers in a letter signed by 64 congressional Democrats, including 10 senators, and provided exclusively to The Hill.

“In practice, each of these mechanisms are ineffective and insufficient due to the current decentralized review process and the associated lengthy wait times.”

Of the three mechanisms, two involve getting buy-in from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the institution that carries out deportations.

That’s left people who want to appeal their deportation with little recourse and without a clear government interlocutor to make their case.

“I mean, you feel lost,” said Vanessa Vaquiz Mendoza, who in 2020 was deported to El Salvador after living in the United States since 1998.

“It’s scary. I go back and think about it. That’s what it was. It was scary, because nobody explained nothing to me.”

Vaquiz Mendoza was among the women who in 2020 was subjected to alleged medical abuse and neglect at the Irwin County Detention Center, where “female detainees appear to have been subjected to excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary gynecological procedures,” according to a 2022 Senate report.

Vaquiz Mendoza, who had surgery while detained, signed papers to expedite her deportation while at Irwin, a facility where “there was no way to feel safe there.”

“They don’t want me to go back and fight my case. I know that,” she said.

“But it would be only fair. I think when I did sign deportation I was in very bad terms, I was not OK with everything that I was going through.”

The Democrats are not calling for deported people such Vaquiz Mendoza to be allowed to return immediately, but rather to create a centralized clearinghouse at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to process such cases.

“What we’re asking is for a centralized unit, we’re not asking for people to massively be allowed [back],” Espaillat told The Hill.

“They’ll be able to review each case, and it’s a matter of fairness. I think the average person understands that, and it’s not as charged as the overall immigration debate.”

The proposed DHS unit would mirror a similar organization launched last year under Mayorkas called ImmVets, which provides noncitizen U.S. military veterans with immigration assistance, including a centralized hub to process appeals to return after deportation.

The proposal was conceived in a white paper published by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a group dedicated to ensuring access to justice for immigrants.

According to the lawmakers, creating such a clearinghouse would not require congressional action, and could be funded with the department’s existing budget.

“Establishing a centralized unit to review requests to return to the U.S. from people who have been wrongfully or unjustly deported is wholly within DHS’s broad legal authority and would bring fairness and credibility to the U.S. immigration system,” they wrote.

“Bringing home unjustly deported fathers, mothers, community leaders, and workers is also a critical step toward shifting the current U.S. immigration system towards a system that supports family and community unity.”

The need to revise deportations is especially critical for people who lived in the country for long periods of time, who in many cases were forced to permanently separate from their families over relatively minor infractions.

“When someone is wrongfully deported, it doesn’t just impact a lone individual. Oftentimes, as I’ve seen firsthand in my congressional district, that person leaves behind a family that needs them and a community that values their contributions,” Cleaver said.

Leonel Pinilla was a legal permanent resident in New York who was deported following a 2009 traffic stop where a small amount of marijuana was found in his car.

Pinilla was detained from 2009 until 2012, when his green card was up for renewal, and then deported to Panama.

Though New York decriminalized marijuana possession in 2016 and Pinilla’s conviction was vacated by a state court in 2022, he has found little recourse to make his case.

“I tried all the legal avenues, and they found ways to block me,” said Pinilla, who left his family behind and has not met his two grandchildren.

Pinilla, 57, is also concerned that he’s been unable to pay into Social Security since his detention and worries that his retirement will suffer for it.

But many advocates say there’s a broader societal concern beyond individual cases — the groups targeted for aggressive immigration enforcement are often the same ones disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.

“There’s no question that Black and brown immigrants with decades of life in the U.S. who have contact with the criminal legal system are at much higher risk of deportation, detention and separation from their entire livelihoods,” said Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy at NIJC and the author of the paper outlining the legislators’ proposal.

“Just like in so many of the systems that Black and brown immigrants are up against, the immigration system itself is harsher and more punitive for low income, underserved Black and brown immigrant communities. And that means that those communities are at higher risk of harsh immigration laws being enforced,” said Gupta.

That connection has attracted broad swaths of the Democratic Party to support the proposal, including many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“Immigration is a civil rights issue. And what I’m hoping for — and I think it’s beginning to happen — what I’m hoping for is this alliance between Black and brown people becoming inflexible and permanently connected, because we are getting stronger,” Cleaver said.