On July 23, 18-year-old Francisco Erwin Galicia was released from custody after more than three weeks spent detained at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Pearsall, Texas. Even though he was born in Texas and said he had a Texas driver’s license, social security card, and copy of his birth certificate with him, federal agents had said he didn’t sufficiently prove his citizenship. He almost agreed to voluntary deportation due to the poor living conditions in custody; he said he shared a room with 70 people, couldn’t brush his teeth or use the bathroom, and lost 20 pounds. 

This is not the first time in history that the U.S. has tried to deport its own citizens. According to Kevin Johnson, professor of public interest law and Chicana/o studies at the University of California — Davis School of Law, the first mass deportation in U.S. history occurred during the Great Depression, when people were sent to Mexico to open up more jobs for American citizens. Many children and other family members of these people, who actually were U.S. citizens, ended up deported as well. 

“If they wanted to stay with their parents, they had to leave the country,” Johnson said.

Research by former California senator Joseph Dunn found that 1.8 million people in total were deported during this time, 60 percent of them being US citizens. Back then, there weren’t removal hearings like there are today.

“People were put on buses, put on trains, and dropped off at the border,” added Johnson.

Burden of the states

Even though this was against the law, state and local governments were often in charge of deportations, which allowed for less oversight.

“There was less of a requirement that state and local governments explain what they were doing,” said Johnson. “It was state and local governments in a crisis mentality, just doing whatever they could to rid the country of Mexicans — many if not all of the immigrants — and save public relief and jobs for U.S. citizens. There was very little worry about due process, about legal protections, about the law. It was also a different time in our history, where the rights of immigrants weren’t nearly as well recognized as they are today.”

Another famous mass deportation in U.S. history was Operation Wetback in 1954, during the Eisenhower administration, wherein general Joseph Swing, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, deported people of Mexican ancestry from the southwest, many of them U.S. citizens. President Trump has praised this operation.

Mexican workers await legal employment in the US, Mexicali, Mexico; Jan. 7, 1954. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

“It was immigrant adults, citizen adults, and citizen children,” said Johnson. “Sometimes, when you cast out these nets to remove undocumented people, it catches more than you might think. And if you do everything quickly, you might make mistakes, and Operation Wetback is one of those situations where citizens were deported because they’re of Mexican ancestry and doing some of the jobs undocumented immigrants were doing.” 

Since then, there has been reform in how deportations are conducted. According to Johnson, first, people need to go through a formal hearing process, and more due process protections are available to them. While this was always theoretically the case, the law is now better enforced because deportations are kept within the central government.

This is largely due to Supreme Court decisions outlining the proper process for removing someone from the country. In addition, there are organizations and even celebrities advocating for immigrants’ rights today. As a result of these changes, there’s a uniform set of laws that govern how people are deported, as well as a court system specifically for immigration cases. 

Even so, there are still frequent reports of U.S. citizens being deported. While this most commonly happens with children of undocumented adults, U.S. citizens are sometimes individually deported as well. ICE doesn’t try to claim that it has the right to deport citizens, but it will often claim someone has insufficient evidence that they’re a legal citizen, as it did in Garcia’s case. 

“One of the issues is that sometimes people tend to think others of certain ethnic backgrounds are non-citizens when that’s not always the case,” said Johnson. “Throughout our history, we’ve had a hard time distinguishing people who might be Mexican immigrants and citizens. There’s this assumption that people of particular backgrounds, whether it’s Mexicans, Asians, sometimes Africans, are foreigners when in fact they may well be U.S. citizens.”

History repeating itself

This attitude is evidenced in Donald Trump’s recent tweet that Congress members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” All of them are U.S. citizens and three of the four were born in the U.S.  

Another form of deportation of U.S. citizens that regularly takes place is the deportation of criminals to the country or state where they committed the crime. This is legal, as the Extradition Clause of the Constitution allows a fugitive to be deported even if they’re a citizen, according to immigration attorney David Reischer.

This clause reads:“A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime.” 

Families separated by immigration status, lack of visas, or deportations, are briefly reunited in no man’s land on the U.S.-Mexico border on May 12, 2018, in the dry Rio Grande riverbed in-between Mexico and the United States. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images).

According to Reischer, in order for another country to request deportation of a criminal in the U.S., they need to send an application to the U.S. State Department, which is then passed to the Justice Department. If the application is accepted, an arrest warrant is obtained. This is more likely to happen to U.S. citizens if they also have citizenship in another country.

While U.S. law doesn’t otherwise allow for the deportation of U.S. citizens, there still isn’t any law against deporting non-citizens with children, who will likely end up leaving with them.

However, “some federal judges have been critical of the fact that when parents of U.S. children are deported, that often results in the whole family leaving the country,” said Johnson.

Judge Harry Pregerson in the Ninth Circuit, for example, wrote in Cabrera-Alvarez v. Gonzales that he hoped the government would “ameliorate the plight of families” torn apart by deportation and “give us humane laws that will not cause the disintegration of such families.” More recently, he argued in the 2017 Sanchez v. Sessions that the petitioner’s removal order was based on the Fourth Amendment violation of arresting someone due to his Latino ethnicity, and the removal order was canceled. 

In addition, various politicians have proposed efforts to prevent the deportation of U.S. citizens. 

While in office, President Barack Obama proposed Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), which would have given undocumented parents of U.S. citizens temporary relief from removal in order to get work authorization. DAPA was halted by a federal court injunction in the Supreme Court by 4/4. However, multiple politicians vying for the 2020 democratic nomination, including Julián Castro, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, have expressed the intention to put something like DAPA into place if they’re elected. 

“It’s been a problem for many administrations,” said Johnson, “and it’s a problem that we haven’t really fully addressed yet as a nation.”