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For One Immigrant, Erroneous Deportation Was a Death Sentence

Mike Corradini, JD on March 5, 2012

Nelson Avila-Lopez had never been convicted of a crime when he burned to death in Honduras’ Comayagua prison last month. He fled Honduras at age 16 to escape the gangs that were constantly pressuring him to join and crossed into the US to live with his mother in Los Angeles. 

Four years later, he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). After asserting that he would be targeted for persecution by gangs if he were deported to Honduras, an Immigration Judge granted him a stay of removal so that he could apply to stay in the US.

Before he even had a chance to apply, ICE transferred him to a detention facility in Arizona and put him on a plane to Honduras. When he arrived, he was taken to the Comayagua prison, where he died four months later in a blaze that killed 358 inmates. His mother has returned to Honduras to find her son’s remains, which, like the bodies of the other inmates who died in the fire on February 14, was so badly burned that it will only be identified through DNA testing.

Nelson should never have been deported. After asserting that he was afraid of persecution in Honduras, he was legally entitled to apply for protection in the US.

ICE casually stated that his deportation was the result of a “communications breakdown” between its officers and the Immigration Court. This tragic “breakdown” occurred even though ICE lawyers were presumably present when the judge ordered a stay of removal—and despite the fact that Nelson’s lawyer confirmed with ICE that they had received notice of the stay.

The Immigration Court also disputes ICE’s account, asserting that it notified ICE of Nelson’s stay before his deportation. But regardless of whether Nelson’s deportation was a deliberate violation of the judge’s order or a simple mistake, the result was the same: Nelson spent the last four months of his life in the Honduran prison where he ultimately burned to death.

Sadly, this outcome was predictable and entirely preventable. The Obama administration’s heedless rush to deport every undocumented immigrant in the country has resulted in several well-documented erroneous deportations, including deportations of US citizens.

There is no excuse for ICE’s actions in this case.  If someone asserts that his life would be in danger if he were deported, ICE has a legal duty to let him remain in the US until an Immigration Judge decides whether he should be given permanent protection.

Our immigration system is broken, and until Congress decides to fix it, the Obama administration must ensure that all immigrants, and particularly those who fear persecution and torture in their home countries, are given a chance to have their cases heard. 

It could start by ordering the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security to conduct an investigation into Nelson’s case and issue a public report detailing exactly where the system failed. By recommending steps that ICE could take to fix these failures, perhaps a future “communications breakdown” and erroneous deportation will be prevented.

If the government cannot recognize that its mistakes in immigration enforcement have dire consequences, Nelson will truly have died in vain.

Places: United States