For One Immigrant, Erroneous Deportation Was a Death Sentence

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

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

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

Nelson should never have been deported. After asserting thathe was afraid of persecution in Honduras, he was legally entitled to apply forprotection 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 ICElawyers were presumably present when the judge ordered a stay of removal—anddespite the fact that Nelson’s lawyer confirmed with ICE that they had receivednotice of the stay.

The Immigration Court also disputes ICE’s account, assertingthat it notified ICE of Nelson’s stay before his deportation. But regardless ofwhether Nelson’s deportation was a deliberate violation of the judge’s order ora simple mistake, the result was the same: Nelson spent the last four months ofhis 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 immigrantin 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 indanger if he were deported, ICE has a legal duty to let him remain in the USuntil an Immigration Judge decides whether he should be given permanentprotection.

Our immigration system is broken, and until Congress decidesto fix it, the Obama administration must ensure that all immigrants, andparticularly 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 theDepartment of Homeland Security to conduct an investigation into Nelson’s caseand issue a public report detailing exactly where the system failed. By recommendingsteps that ICE could take to fix these failures, perhaps a future “communicationsbreakdown” and erroneous deportation will be prevented.

If the governmentcannot recognize that its mistakes in immigration enforcement have direconsequences, Nelson will truly have died in vain.

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