How US immigration officers use dubious identity papers to deport people

Under pressure to speed deportations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement relies on documents of questionable validity

Understaffed and poorly functioning foreign consulates often have difficulty producing travel documents needed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in order to deport people. As a result, ICE has used documents of questionable validity in sending people back to their home countries — or, in at least one case, to a country where the deportee does not hold citizenship.
Sam Ward for Al Jazeera America

In March 2013, Patrice Talbot was taken out of York County Prison in southern Pennsylvania and told he was being deported. Officials with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, later showed Talbot the temporary one-way passport, known as a laissez-passer, they said they had secured for him from Cameroonian officials. ICE was required to produce a travel document in order to send him back to his native country of Cameroon, which he said he’d fled in 2002 after enduring arrests and brutal beatings by police. Talbot had been living without papers in Philadelphia after being denied political asylum in the United States almost nine years earlier. He says he was afraid to return home.

Yet nothing about the Cameroonian passport seemed right. The photograph was so dark and grainy he hardly recognized himself. The single sheet was not printed on embassy letterhead. And instead of bearing the signature of the ambassador, the passport was signed by someone he had never heard of — Charles Greene, of Houston, Texas. Talbot expressed his concerns to the ICE officer assigned to his case, Mistyann Schram. When Talbot was charged in August 2013 with resisting deportation, a federal judge stated in a ruling that she also doubted the document’s validity. By then, others had raised questions about the role of Greene, a Methodist minister who served in a voluntary capacity with the Cameroonian ministry, in deportations. According to documents reviewed by Al Jazeera America, Greene had issued a Cameroonian passport in the spring of 2013 to someone who was not even a citizen of that country.

Talbot spent almost two years fighting his deportation from the York detention center. But despite the red flags surrounding the passport, he was sent back to Cameroon in January 2015 on a charter flight with the document in hand.

Talbot’s story is not the only one of its kind. In a report released today, “Smuggled into Exile,” the New York-based advocacy group Families for Freedom raises concerns about other cases in which ICE officials deported people based on falsified identity documents. The group identified at least four individuals who were removed from the United States from 2012 to 2015 with travel papers of dubious validity or without any papers at all. It says the actual number may be much higher.

Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom and the report’s editor, says this practice is not the only example of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, bending international norms and its own rules in order to expedite deportations. Meanwhile, the consequences for people who are removed without valid laissez-passers or other paperwork can be significant. People who arrive in their country of origin without proper identity documents may have difficulty working or accessing local services and can even be subject to arrest.

“To us, the travel document is much more than a piece of paper,” Paulos said. “It is the weight that hangs in the balance of our freedom or imprisonment.” 

In an email, Sarah Maxwell, ICE’s Philadelphia-based spokeswoman, denied that the agency knowingly deports people without valid papers. “Consistent with every removal effected by the agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does its due diligence in working with the receiving country’s designated representative, who is responsible for verifying the citizenship of the deportee and issuing the requisite travel documents,” she wrote. Greene has also defended the accuracy of the passports he issued.

[A]cquiring travel documents for deportees is a challenge. Governments with poorly functioning or underfunded consular services are often unable to respond to ICE requests.
Patrice Talbot with his wife, Crystal. They are hoping to eventually be reunited in the United States.
Courtesy Crystal Talbot

Formed after the Sept. 11 attacks, ICE is responsible for enforcing immigration laws and deporting people deemed to be removable — those who lack legal status and have exhausted all immigration proceedings available to them. To ensure that individuals are deported to countries where they have recognized status, and that they have proof of citizenship upon arrival, deportation officers must obtain travel documents from the receiving country before removing anyone. Typically, the officers provide officials at the consulate or embassy of the destination country with information that attests to the deportee’s identity. The consular official uses that information to corroborate the deportee’s citizenship status, for example by checking against a national identity database. One form of temporary travel document issued for deportees to West Africa who lack passports is the laissez-passer like the one produced for Talbot.

According to investigations by The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times, acquiring travel documents for deportees is a challenge. Governments with poorly functioning or underfunded consular services are often unable to respond to ICE requests. A 2007 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, or OIG, found that due to problems securing travel documents, nearly half of African deportees remained in detention for more than 90 days after being issued a final order of removal, the highest of any region. People who have been issued a final order of removal, but have no travel documents, are generally supposed to be released from detention after 180 days.

Schram, who handled deportations to Cameroon, often had trouble getting travel documents for the country, according to testimony she gave in 2014 when Talbot was charged with resisting deportation. In the 2.5 years she had been working for ICE, Schram said, she had requested about 150 travel documents and received about 20. When Talbot’s case file came across her desk, she testified, she did not mail the usual package of documents to the embassy. Instead, she sent the papers to the ICE field office in Houston, whose employees then approached an honorary consul for Cameroon who lived in the area. This person was Greene.

Honorary consuls are citizens or legal residents of the host country who have personal or professional contacts with the country they are serving. In 2013 there were about 20,000 honorary consuls worldwide, according to The Economist, and by one count about 1,200 in the U.S. Most are residents of cities that lack formal consulates, and they often work without pay; while they may provide limited consular services, they can be appointed to nurture the foreign country’s business interests.

Greene, who was born in Liberty, Texas, had never been to Cameroon before his appointment, in April 1986, as honorary consul. Nor did he have any experience working in immigration or foreign affairs. His only direct link to the country was through his family’s oil wells in Texas, which had been purchased by Shell many years ago. At the time, the company also had holdings in Cameroon.

It was rare for ICE to approach Greene, but it had happened before. Greene testified at Talbot’s trial that from 2010 to 2014 he had produced 14 travel documents for the agency. (The ICE press office responded to requests for comment directed to Schram.)

In at least one of the cases preceding Talbot’s, Greene had made an error. According to documents reviewed by Al Jazeera America, in May 2013 Greene issued a passport for another individual on Schram’s caseload, Noah. (Noah’s name has been changed since he and his family are still working to gain legal status and documentation.) Noah was born in the Ivory Coast and said he had never been to Cameroon, although he is of Cameroonian descent. After Noah’s lawyer provided Greene with Noah’s Ivorian birth certificate and a copy of Cameroonian citizenship statutes — which strictly prohibit dual citizenship — Greene issued a retraction of the original document. But nonetheless, in 2014, Noah was deported to Cameroon.

According to Bardis Vakili, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego, people deported to their home countries without valid documentation may face a greater risk of arbitrary arrest or be unable to work or receive medical care.
Noah's identity documents

A number of people have raised questions about whether Greene, as an honorary consul, has the authority to issue passports, particularly to deportees. The particular bylaws of each embassy determine whether honorary consuls can issue such documents. A form on the Cameroonian Embassy website, dated March 2013, appears to specify that travel documents can only be secured through the Washington, D.C., office. The Cameroonian Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Cameroon’s Ministry of External Affairs could not be reached for comment.

Talbot said that when he called the Cameroonian Embassy from detention around April 2013, embassy officials told him the passports produced by Greene were invalid. In court, Paulos, the Families for Freedom advocate who was assisting with Talbot’s case, and Talbot’s lawyer, Harrisburg public defender Lori Ulrich, told the judge that Greene had told them he was only permitted to issue travel documents for people within Texas. In his testimony, Greene denied making those statements. Greene also testified that ICE agents failed to inform him that Talbot was being held in Pennsylvania when they approached him to produce the travel document.

In a phone interview, Greene struggled to recall the details of specific cases and denied that there had ever been questions about the legitimacy of the documents he produced. When pressed on the issue, he suggested that Noah had claimed different countries of origin at different times in order to complicate ICE’s efforts to deport him. “Every time you try to nail them down to a country, they jump over to another country,” Greene said.

He also insisted he had the legal power to produce identity documents on behalf of ICE. “There’s nothing false about [these papers],” he said. “I worked through Homeland Security. They brought it to me and I responded.”

Greene’s practices do not appear to be common. None of the immigration attorneys or immigrant advocates contacted by Al Jazeera America were familiar with cases in which ICE had approached an honorary consul in order to secure travel documents.

According to the 2007 OIG report, however, it is common for deportation officers to take shortcuts when attempting to acquire travel documents for deportees. OIG investigators found that four of seven field offices “routinely” failed to submit the specific travel document applications required by receiving countries. Instead they simply sent passport photographs and a standard DHS form.

And Talbot’s experience may fit into a broader pattern of overreach by U.S. immigration authorities, say civil rights advocates. In a report last year, the American Civil Liberties Union said that officers with DHS appear to have provided false and misleading information to many deportees in order to secure their signatures on voluntary departure forms and formal deportation orders. According to Sarah Mehta, the ACLU researcher who authored the report, DHS officers have pressured individuals into signing voluntary departure forms and deportation orders. In some cases, people were told they would be released to go home if they signed the papers or that they would lose their children if they refused, Mehta said. Even people with legal status in the U.S. have sometimes been coerced into signing removal orders.

Maxwell, the ICE spokeswoman, wrote that neither Noah nor Talbot had a legal basis on which to remain in the United States. She declined to answer specific questions on whether they had been deported on the basis of false or fraudulently procured papers.

People deported with invalid papers can face major hurdles upon their return. The Families for Freedom report describes the case of Carlos, an immigrant from Ecuador who faced deportation after pleading guilty to criminal charges. In August 2013, the Ecuadorian consulate in Atlanta sent a letter to Carlos’ deportation officer stating that it could not locate documentation confirming his Ecuadorian nationality. By that point, Carlos had been in the United States for decades and did not have the identification the consulate required to corroborate his citizenship status. According to Families for Freedom, in October 2014 Carlos was sent back to Ecuador anyway, with a sheet of paper that resembled a photocopy of the ID page of a passport. When Carlos arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, government officials confiscated the document, telling him it was invalid, according to the report.

Carlos told Families for Freedom that he lived in fear of arrest since police frequently stop people and ask for identification. It took Carlos five months to obtain Ecuadoran identification. In that time, he was unable to work and struggled to feed, clothe and house himself, according to Families for Freedom.

According to Bardis Vakili, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego, people deported to their home countries without valid documentation may face a greater risk of arbitrary arrest or be unable to work or receive medical care. “Even for those who are somehow able to navigate the process well enough to eventually get ID documents, the process can take months if not years, during which time they have to struggle just to survive.”

‘The Court believes that the evidence presented by Defendant raises serious questions as to the validity of the travel document such that this Court is unable to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the travel document is valid.’

Judge Yvette Kane

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pa.

After his asylum claims failed in 2005, Talbot was granted a voluntary removal, meaning he was allowed to arrange his own travel back to Cameroon, according to the Families for Freedom report. He decided to defy his deportation order and remain in the country undocumented. Years passed. Talbot settled in Philadelphia, where he met and moved in with an American woman, Crystal Cesar. But in 2013, Cesar called police, alleging domestic violence, and Talbot was arrested. Although Cesar quickly dropped the charges, Talbot’s name was flagged in an ICE database. He was handed over to immigration officials in compliance with federal law.

Fearful of what awaited him in Cameroon, Talbot repeatedly resisted deportation. In August 2013, after he fought back physically during an attempt by ICE to put him onto a commercial flight to Cameroon, Talbot was charged with hindering removal from the United States, a federal crime. The matter went to a bench trial in May 2014. In her ruling, Judge Kane found Talbot guilty of resisting removal. However, she concurred with his defense that the passport was dubious. “The Court believes that the evidence presented by Defendant raises serious questions as to the validity of the travel document such that this Court is unable to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the travel document is valid,” she stated in her decision.

In January, after he was taken to a detention center in Miami, Talbot decided he was tired of fighting. One day that month, he boarded a charter flight bound for Douala International Airport with roughly 14 other deportees from the region. The three other deportees from that country were allowed to disembark while he waited on the plane, according to Talbot. He was then taken to a holding cell, where he waited for nearly five hours, Talbot said. Only after he phoned a relative in the city and paid an official a bribe was he permitted to leave.

Before his deportation, Talbot and Cesar married in a small ceremony in Baltimore in July 2013. The couple filed an application for a spousal visa; that application is still pending. Although she doesn’t know how she’ll find the money to hire a good immigration attorney, Cesar hopes she will eventually be reunited with her husband. Talbot feels the same. “I miss my wife,” he said. “I would do anything to be with her.”

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