Nothing should ever come between a mother and her child—certainly not hundreds of miles of fences and barren terrain. But somehow, Isidora Lopez-Venegas found herself stuck on the wrong side of the US-Mexico border.
Immigration authorities approached the middle-aged mother in 2011 on a San Diego street and asked if she had papers. While in custody with her son, a citizen who has an autism-related disorder, she later recalled, the officer intimidated them and warned that unless she agreed to “voluntary departure,” she might be detained for months or years, and “then they’d take away my child, he’d be sent to a foster home.” She was led to believe that the easier way to sort out her status would be to return and apply to re-enter the country “lawfully.” She wound up with a one-way ticket to exile: she didn’t understand that, thanks to an obscure immigration law, immigrants like her were subject to a ten-year bar to re-entry.
According to the ACLU, which later advocated for Lopez-Venegas as part of a class action suit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—which recently reached a settlement that includes reforms for the California area—Lopez-Venegas “would have been eligible for cancellation of removal if they had gone before an immigration judge, given their strong family and community ties, their long presence in the United States, and their lack of criminal history.” But Lopez-Venegas, like about 80 percent of deportees from the United States, never got her day in court. Her case fell into a legal machine built for mass expulsion, churning people through “summary removal” policies that the ACLU says ignores immigrants’ constitutional rights.
According to the ACLU’s extensive analysis of deportation cases, the Obama administration’s unprecedented deportation record is made possible by a Kafkaesque bureaucratic procedure: “the summary removal infrastructure rapidly and reflexively deported hundreds of thousands of people, including people who are eligible for relief from deportation or who were already in or entering the United States lawfully.” People are not adequately informed of their legal options, and are sometimes deterred from seeking asylum. Parents and children are separated. Domestic violence victims are arbitrarily excluded. Some get funneled through “assembly line” hearings designed to “streamline” expulsion of migrants by the score. Even citizens can get deported if they are accidentally apprehended and lack adequate identification.