One of my favourite novels is B. Traven’s Das Totenschiff (“The Ship of the Dead”). Written in the mid-1920s, this novel tells the story of an American seaman who accidentally gets left behind with no papers when his ship sails from Rotterdam. Suddenly he is a stateless person. He tries to get help from the US consulate, but gets a Catch 22-like sermon, along the lines of, “I would of course help an American citizen who was stranded here without papers, but I am unable to assist you without proof that you are indeed an American citizen.” All the officials he encounters treat him as some sort of ghost, a man without identity papers being a contradiction in terms. (This reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s comments on the imposition of passport requirements for international travel after the First World War, a tyranny that until then had been thought characteristic of Russian despotism.) Since no one wants to deal with a ghost, they find ways to dump him across a border, taking him further and further west, until he lands in Barcelona and ends up being signed on, not entirely willingly, to the Yorick, a ramshackle ship, a floating hell of labour, crewed by other unpersons from all over the world, its hold stuffed with useless cargo that is just being carried around the Seven Seas in the hopes that it will eventually sink and yield an insurance payment.
Anyway, I thought of this surreal novel when I read the recent New Yorker article by William Finnegan, about a US citizen with a minor criminal record and mental disabilities who, for no reason that anyone can reconstruct, was targeted by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for deportation to Mexico. He was born in the US, had never been outside the US, was not Hispanic, but somehow when he was booked into a state prison for a short sentence his birthplace was listed as Mexico, and that was enough to get him deported to Mexico less than a year later. And the Mexican authorities, since he wasn’t Mexican, managed to ship him off to Guatemala. He eventually got returned to the US, though more by accident than design. When he flew into Atlanta, with a passport issued to him by a vice consul in Guatemala City, the immigration officials there noted that he had already been deported and had him arrested, intending to redeport him.
You might think that there is hardly a clearer case of an unlawful punishment than a citizen being mistakenly deported by his own government, and that the US government could only be abashed and apologetic to discover that a citizen had been so mistreated. But no. Among the many shocking things I learned from this article was that
Other U.S. citizens whose citizenship has been erroneously questioned have been severely punished for trying to enter the country. Mario Guerrero Cruz, a U.S. citizen since his birth in 1964, was mistakenly deported from California in 1995. When he tried to come back into the country, he was arrested, and in July, 1998, he was convicted by a jury of illegal reëntry and sentenced to seven years and five months in federal prison.
Other cases of U.S. citizens falsely deported are described here, a summary of a paper by Northwestern Law professor Jacqueline Stevens.* In one case,
a man born in Lawrence, Mass., was deported to the Dominican Republic when he was 19. It took “William” more than a decade before his U.S. citizenship was recognized in 2009.
“Some of these U.S. citizens found the Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody so physically and emotionally debilitating that they capitulated to ICE officers who pressured them to sign statements falsely conceding their lack of U.S. citizenship,” Stevens said. “They preferred deportation to ICE confinement.”
* The link given there to a paper “U.S. government unlawfully detaining and deporting U.S. citizens as aliens” by Jacqueline Stevens is nonfunctional, but the paper is available here.