When Carlos Alberto Bringas-Rodriguez went in for his routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Kansas City on December 20, he expected to be in and out, as on previous visits. A 27-year-old gay asylum seeker from Mexico, Bringas had been in the United States for 13 years, and was living “a calm life” with his husband in a suburb of Kansas City. Together, he and his husband were raising Bringas’s 12-year-old cousin, whom Bringas referred to as his daughter. Bringas was “by the book,” as his husband put it, about complying with government demands. But at his December check-in, something went wrong, and Bringas was taken into custody.
After a frantic day and a half, with his husband and lawyers scrambling to learn why Bringas had been detained and a deportation order had been issued, the government, without permitting him to see his husband, talk to his asylum officer, or secure more HIV medication, and without even informing his lawyers, put him on a flight to McAllen, Texas, and then deported him at night to Reynosa, one of the most violent cities in Mexico. Terrified, holed up in a migrant shelter with a limited supply of his meds, he called his husband to tell him that he was in Mexico, the country where he suffered years of abuse and serial rape.
This wasn’t supposed to happen: Bringas had recently won a crucial decision in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that ruled he was eligible to be granted asylum. He was deported, essentially, because of a clerical error and a lack of communication between the bureaucracies that decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants every year.
The United States has a long history and ongoing practice of turning away asylum seekers or deporting them back to dangerous or deadly situations—most infamously, denying entrance to a boat with almost a thousand Jewish refugees in 1939; over a quarter of them were subsequently slaughtered in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. In more recent years, multiple reports and articles have come out describing how various DHS agencies fail to uphold, or even subvert, asylum law, unnecessarily detaining asylum seekers, sexually abusing them, or deporting them back to countries where they were persecuted. A woman seeking asylum in a San Diego detention center claimed to have suffered a miscarriage earlier this year after being mentally and physically abused by immigration authorities. The New Yorker recently tallied over 60 cases in which asylum seekers were sent back to their death. Other estimates put the number higher.
The majority of the known asylum seekers who are turned away are rejected at the border, or not given a chance to make their claim while in Border Patrol custody. The subversions of asylum law in the interior of the country, and inside of courtrooms, are less known. This American Life recently reported on a series of asylum cases in which absurd levels of governmental disorganization led to asylum seekers’ continued detention, exasperating them to such a degree that they ultimately gave up on their cases. Last year, a judge in Laredo, Texas, told a Mexican father of four, with no criminal record, who was appealing his case, “I get the gist,” and hastily deported him. With outlandish disparities in asylum-grant rates between judges or by geographic jurisdiction, the failure to communicate to asylum applicants about court dates or check-ins, and with ICE seemingly superseding immigration courts by harassing or detaining asylum seekers, those seeking refuge in the United States don’t fare much better even when they make it past the gauntlet of the physical border.
LGBTQ men and women like Bringas are eligible for protection under US asylum law. If they can prove ongoing persecution and the inability to find safety in their home country, they would—ideally—find refuge in the United States. Instead, LGBTQ asylum seekers are often detained—sometimes for months—thrown into solitary confinement, transferred to remote locations, harassed, sexually abused, denied needed medication, and deported back to the countries they have fled. An attorney told Splinter News last year that she has clients “with completely viable claims” who are held so long that they just give up.
In December I reported the story of Jesus Rodriguez Mendoza, a gay Venezuelan asylum seeker with HIV who went on hunger strike in an El Paso detention center in protest of inhumane treatment and prolonged detention. A week into his hunger strike, after staff promised to start force-feeding him, he found blood in his stool and began to eat again. He spent the next 50 days consigned to solitary confinement, and, though he has since been released into the general population, he remains in detention.
“Is there any point for someone who has an asylum claim to come to the United States?” Meeth Soni, co–legal director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center and a member of Bringas’s legal team, wondered. “We’re essentially telling them no. We don’t actually care about our obligations or our commitment to protect people.”
Bringas spent the first decade of his life suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from his uncle, father, various cousins, and a neighbor, in a small city in Veracruz, Mexico. He was raped for the first time, by his uncle, when he was only 4 years old. His abusers targeted him, they told him, because he was gay, importuning him to “act like a boy.” According to Bringas, instead of calling him by his name, they typically referred to him as “fag, fucking faggot, or queer.”
From the age of 9, he was raised by his grandmother in Veracruz, though he spent a brief period in Kansas, where his mother lives, when he was 12. Upon returning to Mexico, the abuse intensified. At one point, when he refused to submit to his neighbor’s demand for oral sex, he was severely beaten. His abusers warned that if he complained or reported their actions, they would target his grandmother.
Bringas fled. He was 14 when, in 2004, he crossed into the United States without papers near El Paso, Texas, and went to live with his mother in Kansas. He went to school, and found work at a supermarket, a pizzeria, and a chocolate shop. He stayed out of trouble, but in August 2010, when Bringas was 19, he pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Colorado in an incident involving a minor’s drinking alcohol in his home. According to the case file from a 2017 Ninth Circuit ruling, “Bringas spent ninety days in jail, during which time he attempted suicide and was hospitalized, which precipitated his finally telling a doctor and then his mother about his childhood abuse.” The same year, he filed for asylum, describing the serial mental, physical, and sexual abuse he suffered as a child, and Mexico’s inability to protect him.
Despite Mexico’s visible national efforts to protect LGBTQ individuals—the country legalized gay marriage in 2016—recent years have also seen an increase in violence against gay, lesbian, and transgender people. According to one 2017 study, over 200 LGBTQ people had been murdered in the previous three years.
A 2010 report revealed an increase from “an average of nearly 30 killings a year motivated by homophobia between 1995 and 2000” to “nearly 60 a year between 2001 and 2009.”
Even with his history of abuse in Mexico, Bringas’s initial asylum claim was denied. He filed an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). In 2013, it also denied his claim. That same year, he tested positive for HIV.
Bringas appealed again, this time to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which—seeing the potential legitimacy of his claim—appointed him counsel through its pro bono program. In the fall of 2013, the appeals court assigned the UC Irvine Appellate Litigation Clinic to represent Bringas on his petition for review. A three-judge panel issued a split decision in November 2015, once again denying Bringas’s claim. Bringas’s legal team then fought for a rehearing en banc, a rare occasion in which all of the appeals-court judges sit for the hearing. Dean of Berkeley Law Erwin Chemerinsky argued the case against Office of Immigration Litigation attorney John Blakely, making a powerfully convincing case for Bringas to be allowed to remain in the country.
Soni, who was in court that day, described being astounded by the government’s arguments, which included suggesting that Bringas, as a 9-year-old, should have called the police to report his sexual abusers. One of the Ninth Circuit judges, Milan D. Smith Jr., seemingly flabbergasted by the government’s attorney, told him, “I’m just astonished. I would think you would be embarrassed by the argument, frankly.”
The appeals court ultimately ruled in Bringas’s favor in March 2017, remanding the case to the lower court, and finding his fear of persecution well-founded. The ruling was, according to Soni, “a game-changer for any and all asylum seekers who suffered childhood persecution.” Chemerinsky told me that the Ninth Circuit decision created “a standard for asylum that’s manageable, that’s realistic,” and that, just a year later, “a number of immigration lawyers have relied on [the] Bringas [decision].”
At this point, being granted asylum seemed a mere formality, and Bringas, his husband, and his lawyers were confident that he would meet the required demands. The Executive Office of Immigration Review subsequently remanded the decision—another formality—down to the San Diego Immigration Court to issue a final ruling on the claim.
Bringas, meanwhile, was living back in Kansas, where he had married his US-citizen boyfriend, a psychiatrist, and where he was scrupulously checking into his regular appointments with DHS.
These DHS check-ins were logged in slapdash, hand-recorded notes by officers on what looks like a piece of scrap paper—not the show of any form of organizational competence likely to keep a handle on a multistate, multi-jurisdictional, seven-year asylum case. Some time in the summer of 2017, the San Diego Immigration Court claims to have sent Bringas a notice for his court date for the final ruling in his asylum case, which was set for August 22. But Bringas never received the notice. Soni and other members of Bringas’s legal team tried to find any evidence that the court properly informed him of his court date, but found none. Not even his deportation officer in Kansas City could find such notice. I sent records requests for the same information, and have yet to receive a response. Bringas had been receiving mail from the government at his same address for four years, and had never missed a prior check-in. When he met with his deportation officer, on June 21—just two months before his court date—neither he, nor, seemingly, his deportation officer knew he had an impending hearing over 1,500 miles from his home.
When Bringas didn’t show up in the San Diego court on August 22, the judge, James DeVitto, summarily deported him in absentia, ruling his asylum application abandoned for his failure to appear, contradicting the appeal court’s en banc decision and the “BIA’s express directive to not issue an order inconsistent with the Ninth Circuit’s mandate,” according to a later filing by his attorneys.
I asked Soni if Judge DeVitto was acting in ignorance of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, or in defiance of it. She was unsure, but took the opportunity to point out that the current administration is “dismantling discretionary authority…turning judges into an arm of DHS.” She saw the government as “acting in bad faith to score a deportation victory.”
Judge DeVitto, however, wasn’t the only one potentially not fulfilling his duty that day in court. The government’s lawyer had access to “exculpatory evidence that should have been brought to the attention of the judge,” according to Rekha Sharma-Crawford, a Kansas City–based immigration attorney who represents Bringas. Sharma-Crawford sees this as part of an “erosion of candor” on behalf of DHS attorneys since the new administration took over: Instead of looking to uphold justice, she explained, they are bent on simply securing more deportations. “There is a trend emerging that seems to establish that DHS counsel are citing bad law, withholding information, and opposing everything and fighting every issue,” Sharma-Crawford told me.
Whether the ruling was intentional or due to a lapse is uncertain, but the disarray continued. Bringas didn’t know that he had missed his hearing or had a deportation order, and, again, the court has been unable to produce documentation proving that it even informed him. If he had known, he would have been able to file an appeal, explaining why he wasn’t present.
“Those [ICE] officers, who were previously measured” in their approach to enforcement, Sharma-Crawford said, “are a little more emboldened” since Trump took office. She explained these sorts of tactics—the whisking away of detainees without informing their attorneys (even while they are filing legal paperwork to continue their cases) as new—and mentioned another case in which one of her clients, another gay man, was hastily removed in the middle of the night. “One day you’re good,” Bringas told me, “and then you’re gone.”
When Bringas appeared for his scheduled December check-in it was the first time he had heard about the deportation order that had been issued for him. He was arrested on the spot.
Bringas is not the only person to have been deported because of an error in recent years. “Outdated and inaccurate information,” coupled with an ever-widening net and strident anti-immigrant rhetoric, including an ICE director who told undocumented immigrants “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried,” has seemingly exacerbated the disorganization and impunity within ICE. Researcher Jacqueline Stevens estimates that ICE detained or deported over 20,000 US citizens between 2003 and 2010. One such citizen was detained for six months. In concrete terms, how much this practice has continued under the new administration is unknown.
Bringas was deported to Reynosa with nothing but his passport, a credit card, and the clothes on his back. He had only a limited supply of his vital HIV medication. It was the first time he had been in the country of his birth, and abuse, for 13 years. He told me, sobbing on the phone as he later recounted the moment he crossed into Mexico: “I was in shock. So many thoughts—what’s going to happen to me, my medication. It was a horrible, horrible moment. I felt heartbroken. I’m still heartbroken.”
He fled again, looking for safety, finally ending up in Tijuana, close to the border, hoping to be able to come home. “There were some dark days,” Bringas’s husband said.
His lawyers, meanwhile, appealed back to the Ninth Circuit by filing a writ of mandamus—basically a higher court’s correction of a lower court’s mistake. Three weeks after he had been torn from his life, the appeals court reversed the deportation decision and ordered Bringas to be permitted back into the country—but the government delayed, again, claiming it needed longer to process the paperwork. Soni decried the lack of the government’s haste, despite its mistake and her client’s critical situation. Bringas’s husband Fed-Ex’ed his medication to Soni, who would accompany him over the border, so he could have it immediately upon reentry. Now they just needed to wait for the government to finalize the paperwork.
In Tijuana, Bringas—feeling very depressed and with an unrelenting headache—holed up in his hotel room to wait. He took the last of his HIV medication, not knowing when he would get final approval to cross back over. It finally came, the same day he took his last pill. He flew back to Kansas to reunite with his husband and daughter.
His next hearing is scheduled for September 26, with the same Judge DeVitto who ordered him deported previously. DeVitto has a 0.8 percent asylum-grant rate, denying asylum to 99.2 percent of all applicants. Nationally, the denial rate is 61.8 percent. If they lose the case, Soni said, they’ll go back to the appeals court.
I asked Soni how common these sorts of situations are—the government making mistakes, deporting asylum seekers with valid claims, not informing claimants of court dates. “It’s so common…that I can’t keep track,” Soni told me
There seems to be “a mandate from Sessions,” Sharma-Crawford said. “If you’re an immigrant, get rid of them. Process, procedure, professionalism—all be damned.”
For now, Bringas has entered into another holding pattern. He’ll go to San Diego in September to make his asylum claim once again. If the government offers him refuge, he hopes to go to fashion school someday, maybe start a business. Above all, he wants to keep on living his calm, normal life with his family in Kansas.