Mistaken Deportation of Texas Teen Highlights the Rigid, Incompetent Immigration Bureaucracy

The unintended consequences of government regulations on the U.S. economy are disastrous. Among the most harmful are regulations that restrict immigration—the movement of laborers and entrepreneurs across borders. And the costs are not just economic; they are also personal.

Jakadrien Turner, a 14-year-old Dallas teenager, went missing in the fall of 2010. Her grandmother, Lorene Turner, spent years searching for her, and finally found her—in Colombia, where she had been deported by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Jakadrien, an American citizen, ran away from home. Arrested in Houston, she gave police a fake name that happened to be the same as that of a 22-year-old unauthorized immigrant from Colombia. Despite having her fingerprints taken by ICE, supposedly to confirm her identity, she was deported. Jakadrien did not have a passport, did not speak Spanish, and knew nothing about Colombia, but that didn’t matter to the bureaucrats at ICE. ICE eventually admitted its mistake but now Jakadrien is being held in a Colombian jail with an uncertain fate.

None of this would have happened if America’s immigration rules and bureaucracy weren’t so rigid.

Jakadrien isn’t alone. Mark Lyttle, an American citizen born in North Carolina with a history of mental illness, was picked up by ICE in 2008. He gave conflicting stories to different agents, at one point claiming he was a Mexican citizen to avoid argument. ICE ignored records showing he was born in North Carolina and deported him anyway. Lyttle eventually returned to the U.S. following his ordeal.

Andres Robles’s story is the best example of how broken our bureaucratic immigration system really is. He was deported to Mexico in early 2011 despite claiming that he was a citizen. Robles’s father was a citizen, so he correctly assumed that he would inherit citizenship. In mid-2011. when Robles was fighting the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) from Mexico, they sent him a cryptic letter that said:

“You derived citizenship on June 13, 2002, when your father became a naturalized citizen of the United States. However, since you were deported from the United States, we are unable to complete the N-600 application process and provide you with a certificate of citizenship. Upon your return to the United States, please make an appointment at the USCIS office closest to your current location.”

Franz Kafka is alive and well in our immigration system.

George Ibarra, a veteran from Phoenix, Arizona, has been deported twice over the past 15 years despite his efforts to prove his citizenship. Ibarra, a former Marine, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder after being wounded in the first Gulf War. His mother was born in Mexico and brought him across the border as a child but his grandfather and great-grandmother were born in the U.S., which should make him eligible for derived citizenship. “I’m up against a big old juggernaut,” he said. “You know, a bureaucratic juggernaut that just doesn’t want to let go; you know they just keep trying to stick it to me.”

For a veteran who bravely served his country to be deported is disgraceful. But he isn’t the only veteran being threatened in that way. Fernando Cervantes, a Vietnam veteran, who has faced deportation, legally immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1961. At age 18 he enlisted in the Army to fight in Vietnam. Years later he said, “I thought it was my patriot duty.” But his patriotism didn’t save him from the grasping bureaucracy of ICE and CIS. In 2009, 2010, and 2011 Congressmen have unsuccessfully tried to prevent the deportation of Cervantes through legislative action. His fate remains uncertain.

Some U.S. citizens are held in detention for long periods of time instead of being deported. American citizen Hector Veloz, the son of a decorated Vietnam veteran, was arrested in Arizona in 2007 and held by immigration officials. Veloz had to prove his citizenship from behind bars, which is much more difficult than it sounds. After almost nine months a judge determined that he was a citizen but the government appealed the case. He was released five months later.

3600 American citizens have been arrested through the Secure Communities program and handed over to ICE on suspicion of being unauthorized immigrants according to a recent report by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. When American citizens are routinely arrested for immigration charges, it’s time to reform and loosen our restrictive immigration laws.

CIS recently started a 24/7 toll-free phone line for people who have been wrongly detained. While welcome, that is merely a band aid that avoids the fundamental problem. America’s immigration regulations and restrictions are so strict and so inflexible that they can ruin the lives of American citizens caught in their net, some of them Texas teenagers like Jakadrien Turner. The unintended consequences of our protectionist immigration laws harm not just immigrants, but everyone.