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A Simple Paperwork Error Can Get Asylum Seekers Deported. Rosa Díaz Got Lucky on a Lunch Break

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A woman sits in a red plaid dress holding papers with a Christmas tree in the background.
Sitting in her home in Colusa County on Dec. 29, 2021, Rosa Díaz holds the papers she was given by immigration officials when she fled Honduras and asked for asylum at the U.S. border. Díaz was ordered deported 'in absentia' when she missed a hearing in immigration court due to a clerical error in her address. (Courtesy of Rosa Díaz)

Rosa Díaz vividly remembers the summer day in 2019 when she showed up for an appointment at the Sacramento office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The surprise I got on July 12 was that I was going to be deported,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

An ICE officer told her that a judge had ordered her removed from the country after she missed an immigration court hearing in Los Angeles the previous November. Díaz was stunned.

She had left Honduras with her three children in 2018 after police failed to protect her from an abusive partner who beat her close to death while she was pregnant with her youngest child. Over two weeks, they walked, got rides and took buses to the U.S. border, hoping to find protection. They were sent to an ICE family detention center in Texas for three weeks.

Before she was released from detention, Díaz, 40, gave ICE agents the phone number for her adult son, who lived in Maxwell, a town in rural Colusa County in the Sacramento Valley. Her son provided officials with his address, where his mom and siblings would be living. But the address ICE sent to the immigration court got botched: ICE listed the city as Los Angeles.

“I never received a notice of that hearing. If I had, I would have been there,” Díaz said. “My intention was to do things the right way.”

When she was released from detention with a temporary status called “parole,” she was given a year before she had to check in with ICE. Díaz said she thought she had already been granted asylum.

“When a person first gets here, they don't know how things work, and nobody explained it to me,” she said.

The asylum process can be baffling, and, as Díaz learned, navigating it without a lawyer can be disastrous. Unlike in criminal cases, people in federal immigration court have no right to a court-appointed lawyer if they can’t find their own.

Like Díaz, thousands of newly arrived asylum seekers never get their day in court. They can be tripped up by paperwork, and a clerical error can be enough to get them deported.

Last year a third of all immigrants in asylum cases did not have representation, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University. And over the past two decades, just 10% of asylum seekers without legal representation won their cases, while those with lawyers were nearly four times as likely to win protection, according to TRAC’s data.

The luckiest lunch break

After passing an initial asylum screening, Díaz and her kids were released from family detention on June 20, 2018, and told to check in with ICE before her one-year parole document expired. So on June 13, 2019, Díaz voluntarily went to the ICE office in Sacramento. She was instructed to return on June 20 with all her documents, which she did. That day, ICE officials put her in a GPS ankle monitor. On July 12, they summoned her again, and that’s when she learned she had been ordered deported “in absentia” by a Los Angeles immigration judge on Nov. 27, 2018.

ICE officials told Díaz they planned to deport her that same day. But first, the office was closing for lunch.

“I went outside, sat down and burst into tears,” Díaz said. “I cried because I had gotten all the way here with my three children and I couldn’t imagine taking them back to Honduras.”

A pair of immigrant rights advocates with NorCal Resist who were leafleting outside the ICE building stopped to check on Díaz, said Katie Fleming, director of the removal defense program at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in Sacramento. The advocates drove her to Fleming’s office and made an urgent plea for legal help.

“We were able to talk to her and then advocate with ICE to give her a few more days to be able to try to reopen that removal proceeding because she did not know about it,” Fleming said.

The swift response by the activists and lawyers was an incredible stroke of luck for Díaz. Attorneys succeeded in reopening her case. And in March, with Fleming representing her, she won asylum for herself and her children.

But what Díaz experienced is common for asylum seekers without a lawyer. Fleming said Díaz’s case shows how even people with legitimate claims to asylum can be ordered deported without getting a chance to make their case to a judge.

“She didn’t understand, as most people don’t, what the next process entailed in terms of applying for asylum,” she continued. “She didn’t realize that going to an ICE office is different from going to court.”

Immigrant rights advocates have long argued for universal access to counsel for people in removal proceedings. In a January 2021 report, the American Bar Association made a series of recommendations for how the incoming administration of President Joe Biden could make the immigration system more fair and efficient by providing government funding for lawyers, among other things.

The stakes for people who are deported can include persecution, torture and death, the report noted.

“Unrepresented individuals in removal proceedings are inherently disadvantaged in an adversarial system in which the government is always represented by an experienced attorney,” the report warned.

The Biden administration has asked Congress to budget $15 million to provide representation to families and children, and $23 million for legal orientation programs, but Congress has yet to act.

Deported in absentia

When a person fails to appear for a hearing in immigration court, they can be ordered removed from the country in absentia. That’s what happened to Díaz, and it’s been happening with alarming regularity at San Francisco’s immigration court, according to Milli Atkinson, who runs the Immigrant Legal Defense Program at the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Atkinson said judges handed out scores of deportation orders in absentia from August to November under a new system ostensibly aimed at correcting bad addresses when mail was returned as undeliverable.

“What the court started doing in August is purposely taking cases that they knew people were unlikely to get their mail and rescheduling their hearing and sending a new notice out to an address that the court knows is incorrect,” Atkinson said. “Some of the judges were just reading off their names and their case numbers and ordering them removed in bunches, without looking at the individual file, making sure the information was all correct and really making no attempt to contact the individuals.”

It’s a self-defeating system, Atkinson said, because most immigrants never get the new notice, so they miss their new court date.

She acknowledged that it’s the responsibility of individuals to notify the court within five days every time they move. But many people in removal proceedings are checking in regularly with ICE under a supervision program, she said.

“A lot of times ICE and the government attorneys have information about where these people are and what their current addresses are, and they have no legal obligation to share those with the court,” she said.

At one “returned notice” hearing in San Francisco in late October, Judge Susan Phan had 31 cases on her afternoon docket, but only six of the people were present.

One woman in the courtroom was Nichol Valencia, a fluent English speaker originally from the Philippines who’s married to a U.S. Coast Guard officer. She said she learned that her December hearing date had been rescheduled for October when she checked the court’s website, concerned that COVID-19 might interfere with court business.

“We called you in today because we were concerned you were not getting hearing notices,” Phan told Valencia. “Even though you submitted your new address to the ICE officer, you have to separately submit it to the court.”

“I did submit a blue form to the court,” responded Valencia, who again provided her new address.

After scheduling a new hearing for Valencia in February, Judge Phan turned to a towering stack of blue folders for those not present. She rescheduled two cases, telling the ICE prosecutor he needed to provide more evidence. Then Phan signed deportation orders for 23 people who failed to appear.

Atkinson said she thinks the new system was an effort to cope with the court’s massive backlog, which recently surpassed 1.5 million cases.

“This was a way to help some cases get back on track that might have otherwise lost contact with the court, but the actual result is they’re deporting people in very high numbers,” she said.

In November, Atkinson sent a letter on behalf of a group of Bay Area legal advocates to the presiding judge for the San Francisco court expressing “grave concerns” about the returned notice dockets, arguing they violate the constitutional due process rights of people who are ordered deported in absentia.

In addition, the letter said, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused housing instability for many immigrants and restricted their access to legal services, two reasons the court should be more understanding.

In December, an official for the court system replied, calling the approach a “longstanding practice” for immigration courts throughout the country.

Courts “routinely create dockets for cases with returned hearing notices for efficiency and docket management,” wrote Alexis Fooshé, the communications and legislative affairs division chief of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. “Like every case before the court, immigration judges make decisions based on the specific and unique factors of each case in accordance with applicable law.”

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Atkinson said if people in immigration proceedings had the right to court-appointed counsel, attorneys would help with the simple but essential task of keeping contact information current.

“And all of your mail would go to the lawyer’s office, so that would be a huge problem solved right there,” she said.

Díaz did not have a lawyer to sort out the mess caused when ICE erroneously entered her brother’s address. She’s grateful that the two advocates stopped to help when they saw her weeping outside the Sacramento ICE office.

“If they hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I’d be back in my country and God knows what would have happened to me there.”

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