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Are accidental deportations common? Deported Dallas teen sheds light on faults

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

Whether 15-year-old Dallas teen Jakadrien Turner sought deportation or got caught up in a fast-moving US immigration bureaucracy remains in question as the girl returned to the United States late Friday after an eight-month banishment to Colombia.

The girl was reunited Friday with her family for the first time since running away from her Dallas home in the fall of 2010. “She's happy to be home,” the family's attorney told reporters as Jakadrien left Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport at about 10 p.m., flanked by her family and police.

But the known facts of her case, namely that an American kid who didn't speak Spanish ended up on a plane to Colombia within six weeks of being arrested in Houston for shoplifting, are reviving questions about the frequency of mistaken or accidental deportations of US citizens. Some suggest that mistakes are on the uptick as US authorities have notched record deportation levels in recent years.

“Clearly, U.S.-born citizens can't be detained by immigration officials, much less deported by the Department of Homeland Security,” writes the Los Angeles Times in an editorial about Jakadrien's journey. “But it seems to be happening with greater frequency.”

People who are indigent, mentally disturbed, ex-convicts, or those who were born in the US but can't easily prove it are usually the most susceptible to mistaken deportations, which in the most egregious cases critics liken to state-sanctioned kidnapping. One study published last year looking at cases in which deported Americans have later been able to prove they're US citizens contends that about 1 percent of those detained and deported in any given year are, in fact, Americans. That's about 20,000 people since 2003, it concludes.

In recent months, major news organizations, including The New York Times, have published exposés about programs like Secure Communities, a national fingerprint database that local police departments can use to identify undocumented immigrants, and how they have boosted detentions of US citizens. In the past two months, at least four Americans were picked up and detained by US immigration authorities in California before being released. In the majority of those cases, the news organizations have noted, detainees were released, not deported.

Nevertheless, “the truth is that banishment, and in some cases kidnapping, of US citizens by immigration law enforcement agencies is continuing with an alarming, albeit underreported, frequency,” according to a study published last year in The Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law. “US citizens who previously had been housed and self-sufficient or cared for by their families have been found bathing in the Tijuana River and eating garbage, ... obtaining nourishment and liquid from roadside cans in El Salvador, and, in a somewhat surreal reversal, eking out livings as day laborers in Mexico or telemarketing in the Dominican Republic.”

In past cases, US authorities have acknowledged that the massive immigration bureaucracy is not foolproof, and that the complexity of many such proceedings can lead to mistakes, especially when US citizens, as in Jakadrien's case, waive their rights and clear their own way for deportation. Critics, however, say such mistakes point to systemic flaws, compounded by the curtailment of due process in immigration courts, that need to be resolved.

In Jakadrien's case, her family and lawyer blame US government officials for failing to pick up what they say were obvious clues that the girl was an American. "She looks like a kid, she acts like a kid. How could they think she wasn't a kid?" Lorene Turner, her grandmother, asked on Thursday.

Partly to blame could be the confusing nature of immigration proceedings, although US authorities says Jakadrien – who gave her name as Tika Lanay Cortez, 21, of Colombia – waived her right to an immigration attorney.

“Often in these situations they have these group hearings where they tell everybody you're going to be deported," Jacqueline Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, explained to the Associated Press. "Everything is really quick, even if you understand English you wouldn't understand what is going on. If she were in that situation as a 14-year-old she would be herded through like cattle and not have a chance to talk to the judge about her situation."

US authorities regularly coordinate with foreign consulates when completing deportation proceedings. After a judge signed Jakadrien's deportation order, she received a provisional passport from Colombian authorities and was subsequently accepted into the country's “Welcome Home” program for expatriates, where she was supplied with counseling and a job. She was eventually spotted by her family via a Facebook page. Dallas police, with the help of US and Colombian authorities, located the girl in Colombia and began her repatriation proceedings last last year.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told ABC News on Saturday that it's not uncommon for people who enter the US illegally to have no documentation whatsoever to show authorities. In Jakadrien's case, she “maintained [the] false identity throughout her local criminal proceedings in Texas, where she was represented by a defense attorney and ultimately convicted,” ICE said in a statement. “At no time during these criminal proceedings was her identity determined to be false."

In Facebook posts that are presumed to be hers, Jakadrien noted details such as "familia, me happy 4 once in the mountains," but also laments in another post, "I'm having to many problems in mi life, just found out I can't even go bak to the states in another 5 years...."

Washington legal expert Ted Frank, writing on the PointsofLaw.com blog, argues that, given safeguards like appeal rights of deportation orders, it's hard for the US government to accept blame for what happened to Jakadrien.

“It seems very improbable that authorities would knowingly deport an American citizen,” he writes. “As it is, illegal aliens can use the legal process to delay deportation for years, and there are 1.1 million unenforced deportation orders,” many of them held up on appeals.