In a flagrant and seemingly unprecedented violation of U.S. due process, a Central American man has been extrajudicially deported by ICE before having his scheduled day in immigration court. His illegal expulsion happened during an action that sent scores of detainees from Louisiana to Guatemala on an airplane, after they had tested positive for the coronavirus while in ICE detention, but later were deemed virus-free. The Intercept confirmed that one person was illegally deported in this manner, but there may have been more victims.
On August 19, Cesar Marroquín was put on a packed flight to Guatemala after spending five months in detention, waiting to pursue a claim for asylum and for protection against torture in his home country. By law, ICE cannot deport someone unless an immigration judge first orders their removal; ICE merely carries out the judges’ decisions. But before a judge could rule on whether or not Marroquín should be deported, ICE contravened the court’s authority and expelled him.
ICE has admitted to The Intercept that the expulsion was improper. In an emailed statement, agency spokesperson Bryan Cox said that Marroquín’s deportation resulted from an “administrative error” that is “exceedingly rare.” Cox did not respond when asked if other immigrants on the plane in addition to Marroquín were illegally deported.
Illegal deportations do happen, but almost always after an immigrant has lost his or her case in immigration court and is in the process of appealing the decision. In a typical case, Bakhodir Madjitov, a musician from Uzbekistan, applied for political asylum in the U.S. after he came to this country to perform at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He eventually lost his case but appealed the court’s decision. In 2019, he won a stay of the removal, but mere hours later ICE tried to deport him from John F. Kennedy International Airport. In a lawsuit Madjitov filed last month against the government and the ICE agents, he alleges that he insisted to the agents that he had just won a stay of removal and asked them to check the court’s website. He refused to board the plane, and he said the agents responded by beating and tasering him. He was hospitalized, and his medical records show that he was tasered.
But no judge or court ever ordered Cesar Marroquín deported before he was booted out of the U.S. That he was about to speak with an immigration judge but instead was put on a plane bound for Guatemala “is stunning,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel for the American Immigration Council. “I haven’t ever heard of anyone deported on the day he was to be taken to a hearing,” Reichlin-Melnick said.
In a sworn statement he gave to an asylum officer earlier this year, Marroquín recounted how in 2019, a local man running for mayor with a political party called Valor ordered banners for his campaign from Marroquín’s print shop. While he was making the banners, Marroquín said, he got a visit from a well-heeled, local political kingmaker who worked for a rival party. He pressured Marroquín to stop making materials for the Valor candidate and to work for his party instead. Marroquín refused. The man threatened to kill him and his family.
After that, Marroquín and the mayoral candidate were in a riding in a car together one day and were almost run off the road by a vehicle driven by employees of the man who’d threatened him. Later, his house was burglarized. Nothing was taken but election materials. After the Valor candidate lost the election and left town out of fear, two men forced Marroquín into a car and pistol-whipped him unconscious. When he came to, he was in a strange house being shocked with electricity and interrogated about the whereabouts of the losing candidate. The kidnapping and torture lasted for several days before Marroquín was dumped on the side of a road. He went to the hospital, then fled Guatemala.
“I haven’t ever heard of anyone deported on the day he was to be taken to a hearing.”
Marroquín’s uncle, who is in the U.S. legally, offered to support him until it was safe to return home. Hours after he crossed into South Texas on March 16, he surrendered to Border Patrol agents. Within days he was moved to the Catahoula Correctional Center, a privately managed ICE detention facility in rural Louisiana. There he was interviewed by an asylum officer to determine if his story about the threats to his life was credible. The officer concluded that Marroquín’s horrific account was believable yet decided that Marroquín had no claim for protection in the U.S. because he could relocate to a safer part of Guatemala.
Marroquín’s lawyer told him that an immigration judge would be reviewing the asylum officer’s analysis and warned his client that he had little chance of prevailing in court. Even so, Marroquín felt he couldn’t live in Guatemala, and he wanted to exercise his due process right to tell this to a judge. He also wanted to request bond so he could get out of detention and gather evidence to bolster his claim.
At Catahoula, Marroquín waited for his chance before a judge, but in the weeks before his bond hearing, he grew terrified of conditions inside the detention center. By late April, Catahoula was publicly reporting seven cases of Covid-19 — a number that in the next four weeks would spike to 60, about one in eight of the facility’s detainees. People with fevers were moved into dorms with healthy residents. Sanitation was lax, he said. ICE officers did not explain what was happening. Instead, they stopped meeting with the detainees.
On Sunday, May 3, as the pandemic worsened, Marroquín joined some five dozen other Central Americans as they took their Bibles to the exercise yard and conducted a prayer protest against what they perceived as ICE indifference to their safety. Within minutes the protesters were attacked with pepper spray.
Meanwhile, political and legal pressure mounted against ICE to empty the detention centers, which epidemiologists and human and immigrants’ rights activists were denouncing as hothouses for Covid-19. Cases of the virus mounted nationwide in ICE facilities, and ICE responded by freeing some people who had medical conditions that increased their vulnerability to serious illness or death. Meanwhile, some ICE staffers got sick with Covid-19. Some died. Others quit their jobs.
Shortly after Marroquín failed bond hearing, he tested positive for the coronavirus. He had no symptoms, but the detention center put him into a small room by himself and made him stay there for 10 days, until he was deemed well. Several weeks later, in early August, he tested positive once more, again without symptoms, and again was isolated. Not until August 10 was he released and classified as recovered. His master calendar hearing was scheduled for nine days later, on August 19.
But Marroquín says that on that day, he was tricked and coerced into boarding an ICE deportation plane bound for Guatemala City.
“At 8 a.m. I was showering and getting ready for my hearing,” he said. “Suddenly I was told to gather my things so I could be transferred to another detention center. I was surprised, because the hearing was for 10 a.m. I kept telling the ICE officer, ‘I have court today! I need to call my lawyer!’ The deportation officer said, ‘No, it’s been postponed until September. We’re just moving you in the meantime to another detention center. In Alexandria.’”
Marroquín and some other Guatemalan men from his barracks were put in shackles and driven to the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana, where he watched 15 buses discharge shackled detainees who shuffled to a plane.
“I protested,” he said. “They told me to sign papers but I refused. They said I would be criminally charged if I didn’t get on the plane. I didn’t sign anything. But I’m a professional, an educated man. I had to respect the authorities. I got on. I was forced to.”
Marroquín said that another man from his barracks also vehemently protested that he had a court appearance scheduled. That man was also forced to board and was deported. (Marroquín did not have the man’s full name or contact information, and The Intercept has been unable to locate him.) An hour and a half later, Marroquín was in Guatemala City — devastated, confused, and furious.
According to news reports, 126 Guatemalan men and one woman were deported en masse, each with a coronavirus infection-and-recovery diagnosis. The total of 127 passengers was a far higher number than on other deportation flights to Guatemala since the coronavirus pandemic began. Earlier flights had never carried more than about 80 passengers.
Marroquín’s immigration lawyer, Carlos Rodriguez, was mystified when he learned that Marroquín had just been deported. Rodriguez recalled that the government’s lawyers were unable to explain what had happened. Subsequently Rodriguez filed a motion to terminate proceedings with the court. It was as though Marroquín had never been in the U.S.
Immigration lawyers and immigrant advocates whom The Intercept spoke with about Marroquín’s case expressed shocked at his deportation. “ICE frequently deports people it shouldn’t,” said Reichlin-Melnick, of the American Immigration Council. But that usually happens, he said, “because someone whom a judge has ordered deported is later granted a stay, and nobody at ICE checks.”
When told about Marroquín’s case, immigration attorney Marty Rosenbluth recalled how one of his clients was deported, even though a motion to reopen her case was pending in a higher court. Like Marroquín, the woman had repeatedly told ICE staff that she was still in court. Rosenbluth said they paid no attention but that he successfully petitioned a court to order his client’s return to the U.S. “It took five months to get her back,” he said.
Rosenbluth said that Marroquín’s attorney “should have demanded that ICE bring him back and grant him humanitarian parole into the U.S. and let him pursue his case without being detained.”
According to Cox, the ICE spokesperson, “An alien removed to their home country without a final order can apply for admission to the U.S.” But there’s no guarantee an application for admission will be granted, according to legal scholars, and wrongly deported immigrants must pay all the costs of trying to return. The application takes months or years.
Marroquín is now stranded on the Guatemala-Mexico border, still fearing for his life.