PHOENIX, Arizona — When Oscar Valenzuela, 18, was driving home after picking up his brother Abel Castellón, 15, at a school soccer game, an encounter with the U.S. Border Patrol resulted in their deportation the following morning.
However, as quickly as the teenagers were deported, authorities brought them back.
Most immigration attorneys agree that the undoing of their deportation was a rare occurrence and advocates argue their case is a testimony of the perils and challenges faced by undocumented youth raised in the U.S.
“I never thought that I was going to get deported,” said Abel, who speaks English with no hint of a Spanish accent. Abel was used to seeing the white and green Border Patrol cars on the road on his way back home on the school bus. His family lives near the town of Casa Grande, where the agency has a station.
The brothers entered the country when they were four and one years old. Abel has no recollection of ever crossing the border.
Their encounter with the Border Patrol began late in the evening of January 11, on their way back from a soccer tournament at Vista Grande High School, which Abel attends. Oscar was behind the wheel as he passed a Border Patrol vehicle on the side of the road. The agents began to follow them, he said.
After about three minutes, an agent pulled them over and told them they were speeding, which Oscar argues wasn’t the case. Both brothers gave him their school identifications.
“He said we had no social security number and that he had to deport us,” said Oscar. “’Are you sure you are going to deport us?’ I asked. And he said: ‘Yes, I’m going to deport you.’”
Shortly thereafter, they were deported.
“They were trying to make us sign paperwork for our voluntary removal in Spanish but we wouldn’t,” said Oscar. The brothers were transported to the Tucson Border Patrol station – about two hours from the border.
The following morning, they were ushered into a bus with other detainees and dropped across the border at noon at the Nogales, Sonora, port of entry. Oscar and Abel had never been in the border city, where violence has escalated over the last couple of years.
“My brother Abel was scared. I didn’t even know how to use pesos,” he said.
The night before, their mother Ana Hernández had received a desperate phone call from Oscar.
“He told me: ‘Mom, they gave us dinner. And they say they will deport us.’ It was horrible, I don’t wish this on anyone,” she said.
The following morning the Mexican Consulate in Tucson told her her sons had been deported and nothing else could be done. But after a Feet in Two Worlds reporter requested information on the circumstances of the teenagers’ removal on January 13, the consulate received a call from the Border Patrol.
Jacobo Tellez, a Mexican officer in charge of the Department of Protection at the Tucson Mexican Consulate, said the Border Patrol contacted him to say there had been an “error” in the youngsters’ removal. He said they shouldn’t have been deported if they didn’t sign a voluntary removal form; instead, they should have been sent before an immigration judge. Tellez helped locate Oscar and Abel, who had a cell phone with them and were staying at a hotel in Nogales.
Soon, a BP agent and a Mexican official picked them up near the border crossing. The kids were handcuffed and driven home in the back of a small border patrol truck used to carry detainees.
Oscar and Abel were surprised. “They drove us home really fast,” Oscar said.
Tucson Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante said the boys “were inadvertently given a voluntary return” and they were reunited with their family thanks to the collaboration with Mexican consular authorities.
“There was an error made and an investigation will take place,” he wrote. Escalante said that a migrant return to the U.S. is possible and happens mostly when the Border Patrol discovers that it wrongfully deported a Central American migrant to Mexico.
Tellez said that Mexico has treaties in place with the United States for the repatriation of minors. Typically, the consulate is contacted before a minor is repatriated and often, if the parents live in the U.S., they are given custody of the minor while he or she awaits a removal proceeding.
In this case, Abel, 15, wasn’t considered a minor because he was with Oscar, a family member, according to the Border Patrol.
Pastor Magdalena Schwartz, from the Disciples of the Kingdom Free United Methodist Church, says she sees similar situations often.
“Many people bring their children when they are really young, sometimes three years old, sometimes months old. And (the children) believe they’re from the U.S. and they act as if they were from here,” she said. “So when things like these happen, they wake up to reality an realize they’re not really from here, and they’re without documents.”
Schwartz said that the main concern in these situations is that children are being deported across a dangerous border to a place they don’t know, where they could become the victims of smugglers and kidnappers.
“I’m glad they corrected the mistake,” she said. “But what about the cases we never hear about, because the parents are afraid to speak up because they’re undocumented?”
Marianne Gonko, the teenagers’ immigration attorney, said their case was odd. That’s why, she said, she wasn’t surprised that the Border Patrol acted to correct it immediately.
“I’ve never heard of a minor being deported so quickly,” she said.
But what is rare is for the Border Patrol to admit they made a mistake, said Phoenix-based immigration attorney Kevin Gibbons.
“It is difficult to get something reversed,” he said.
Gibbons is familiar with cases in which U.S. citizens are deported by mistake and even they have to wait — sometimes for months — to return to their country once they can prove their citizenship.
Part of the problem is that at the border, immigration agents are acting as “judges” that have to make a quick decision as to whether or not a person has a claim as a refugee or has family ties to stay in the country, he said. Sometimes undocumented immigrants are also pressured to sign a voluntary removal, Gonko said.
Schwartz argues that Abel and Oscar’s case was handled differently because there’s been a shift in the way immigration authorities are working under the Obama administration.
“I think this administration is being more compassionate and benevolent,” she said.
The boys’ future in the U.S. is still in limbo.
Gonko, their immigration attorney, said they currently have to report to immigration authorities monthly and she will fight against their removal from the country. She added that they would be perfect candidates for the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow undocumented students to legalize their immigration status. But its possibilities in Washington D.C., as well of those of immigration reform, are uncertain for this year.
Oscar said they shouldn’t have been deported in the first place.
“We weren’t doing anything wrong,” he said. “Just coming back from a soccer game.”