A national civil rights group is accusing immigration officials in New Orleans of illegally deporting asylum-seekers without interviewing them about why they fled their home country, as required by law.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said in a complaint filed last month against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's New Orleans field office that, in some cases, asylum-seekers never had a credible fear interview to explain why they fled and why they fear returning.
Some deportations are happening before asylum-seekers can get a hearing before a judge, or while a review of their case or their appeal is pending, according to SPLC attorneys.
The center filed the complaint on Jan. 18 with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
According to federal law, a person who expresses fear of return to their country cannot be deported until they have had an interview with an asylum officer. The law also bars asylum-seekers from being removed while an appeal is pending or while a case is before the Board of Immigration Appeals.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Mich Gonzalez, an SPLC attorney who said three of his clients were illegally deported.
Gonzalez and other attorneys say they have seen sporadic cases over the years where an asylum-seeker was mistakenly deported and often returned when DHS realized they had made a mistake.
“But seeing this many cases in a six-month span is unprecedented,” Gonzalez said. “And in these recent cases, DHS and ICE are aware and everyone is washing their hands.”
One of his clients was deported to Nicaragua on Dec. 23, the day before Christmas Eve. The client said he spent two months requesting a credible fear interview. He said he fled Nicaragua after being beaten multiple times by members of the National Police.
“The National Police shot me with a rubber bullet and beat me. And here, the United States turned its back to me,” he said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo Investiga before his deportation.
An ICE spokesperson said Gonzalez's client “was afforded all due process that he was entitled to under U.S. law.”
ICE insisted in an emailed statement that it conducts a thorough review of cases before removing anyone from the U.S to "ensure due process has been afforded and that they are not eligible for any additional form of relief at the time of removal.”
Immigration attorneys insist this is not the case.
Gonzalez said another client was deported to Haiti days before Christmas, even though emails shown to NBC News indicate that ICE had been informed of a request for reconsideration.
After arriving in Haiti, according to photos and text messages sent to Gonzalez by his client, he was “brutally beaten” by supporters of two political parties because of his family’s political activism, and narrowly avoided being set on fire.
Gonzalez said his client is still actively fleeing persecution.
According to Gonzalez, ICE has not responded to multiple requests that his client be returned from Haiti.
Homero López, executive director of Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy in New Orleans, said his office has received about 20 to 30 calls from asylum-seekers saying they have been notified they will be deported but haven’t received a credible fear interview. By the time attorneys try to meet with them, they’re already gone.
“There’s definitely some shift that has happened at the asylum office,” said López, who noticed the trend during the past three to four months.
Attorneys and advocates have long criticized conditions at detention centers of the New Orleans field office since the Trump administration. There have been complaints of “horrendous conditions” in the facilities, excessively low rates of parole, and asylum-seekers being offered parol under unusually high bonds.
Jeremy Jong, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Al Otro Lado, said he has a client who was deported to Guatemala despite an active “stay of removal.” He said that for several months ICE assured him it would bring her back. “They haven’t made any moves in that direction at all — she’s still out there languishing, and I can’t get any of the ICE people who are responsible to answer me," he said.
Jong believes part of the problem is that even though administrations have changed, the staff that runs the day-to-day operations at the detention centers remain the same.
“I am not in touch with the thousands of people the ICE office detains," Gonzalez said. "I don’t know how deep the scope of this problem runs. The human cost is terrifying."