EIGHTY-NINE DAYS AFTER HE WAS DEPORTED from the Los Angeles County jail system to Tijuana, mentally troubled U.S. citizen Pedro Guzman returned to his home in Lancaster this week, shivering, stuttering and re-igniting a host of uncomfortable questions for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Guzman appeared at the U.S. border crossing at Calexico late Sunday night, where he was detained on a probation warrant. He was moved to the downtown L.A. jail, and then to the Lancaster jail. There, Superior Court Judge Carlos Chung ordered him released on August 7. That Tuesday afternoon, Pedro Guzman was finally resting at his brother Juan Carlos Chabes’ home on a flat stretch of the Antelope Valley while his mother, Maria Carbajal, and brother Michael Guzman faced a frenetic band of news reporters at the headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in the Belmont area near downtown.
It was a chaotic news conference, as reporters scrambled for details of how Pedro Guzman made it home and why he was deported to Mexico in the first place. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s legal director, hammered away at the feds, using damning, emotional language to fault the government for deporting Guzman by using nothing short of racial profiling.
“This government deported Pedro Guzman because of his skin color, did not examine or review his documents stating that he was born in California because of his skin color, did not bother to comfort this family when he was found because of his skin color,” Rosenbaum said.
The frenzy brought Carbajal and Michael Guzman to bitter tears. They told reporters they’ve spoken only briefly with Pedro because he returned to them in what sounded like a state of shock: trembling, fearful of people, stuttering and unable to communicate in English, one of his two languages.
“He left complete, but they took half of my son,” Carbajal wept, referring to Pedro’s fragile state. “That is the government’s fault. They are guilty.”
Guzman, 29, had been missing since May 11, the day he called his sister-in-law from a strange phone number. He told her he had been deported, was at the border, and was “confused.” “I don’t know why I’m here,” he said. The line went dead and Guzman was not heard from again. The shy and illiterate cement layer, who has a history of learning problems at school, had been serving a 120-day jail sentence for trespassing and vandalism in a bizarre March incident at Lancaster’s Fox Airfield. This was behavior that hinted at some sort of delusion or mental problem in Guzman, according to family and friends. In May, he was supposed to have been released on house arrest — not to immigration. But ever since the county went into an agreement with ICE in 2005 to perform immigration screenings in the jails, more and more inmates like Pedro Guzman are processed through an immigration check before being released or moved to another facility.
Frantic after Pedro’s strange call, Carbajal took a leave from her job as a night-shift cook at a Lancaster Jack in the Box to search for Pedro herself. For weeks she ventured into the teeming back streets of downtown Tijuana in hopes of finding him. She went to Tecate and Rosarito, to jails, morgues, hospitals and halfway houses, and down into the dank ditches of the Tijuana River, a saga recorded by the L.A. Weekly in “Lost in Tijuana” (July 20–26).
After almost two months of living in a windowless shack at a banana distribution plant run by friends from her home state of Nayarit, Carbajal felt she needed to return to Lancaster to take care of the rest of her family and get back to the Jack in the Box where she works alongside her son Michael. She returned to Tijuana only on weekends, often accompanied by her son Juan Carlos and daughter-in-law Vicky. On July 7, his brother Michael was wed at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, without a best man. Pedro would have been at his side, and because of budget constraints, Michael could not postpone the celebration.
Last Thursday, August 2, Carbajal returned to Tijuana for what by now had become a routine weekend of searching. She told the Weekly she tried to come home on Sunday but found the traffic at the San Ysidro crossing too thick. She tried again on Monday, August 6, and that’s when she received a call from the ACLU saying that Pedro had been found. (The organization was representing the Guzmans in a lawsuit against ICE and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.)
Upon arriving at Calexico, according to the ACLU, Guzman was detained because he had an outstanding warrant for missing a probation hearing in July — but his own probation officer seemed indifferent, according to Michael, to the fact that Guzman could not appear because he was a missing person in a foreign country. Late Monday, ACLU officials visited Pedro at Men’s Central Jail downtown to confirm his identity. Rosenbaum said Guzman was “traumatized, shivering; he could not speak.”
The next day, Guzman was released from the Antelope Valley courthouse. A photograph distributed at the news conference showed a thin, bushy-haired Guzman hunched over with a shirt wrapped around his shoulders, but clearly back home under the hot Lancaster sun. Carbajal and Michael said Pedro told them only snippets of his ordeal in Tijuana, a place he had not visited since he was a teenager. He said he first tried to cross back home through San Ysidro, but was repeatedly turned away by U.S. border agents and told, “Stop playing games.” He told his family he then walked 100 miles east to reach the border crossing at Mexicali. He said he ate out of garbage cans, bathed in canals, and avoided people and police. “Whatever we did get out of him, we couldn’t understand it,” Michael said of his first conversation with Pedro. “That’s not my brother, to a certain point.”
It’s still unclear how Guzman’s deportation happened. Initially after his arrest, he told authorities he was born in California. (Guzman was born in September 1977 at USC–L.A. County Medical Center on the Eastside.) But in mid-May, as he was being processed for home release, Guzman told a Sheriff’s custody assistant that he was born in Mexico, according to court documents. Perhaps not realizing that Guzman might have mental issues, the Sheriff’s authorities handed him over to immigration officials in Santa Ana, where again he stated he was a native of Mexico and signed a voluntary deportation order — a one-way ticket to Tijuana. The ACLU contends the jails have few ways to verify whether an inmate is lying about his status.
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But the federal government did not relent on the position it has held since the story broke, that Guzman was deported lawfully. “We believe that, yes,” said ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley, adding via e-mail: “ICE recognizes the important responsibility of enforcing our nation’s immigration laws and carries out its mission judiciously, fairly, and appropriately.”
On Tuesday, the renewed questions flew from a packed room of journalists: Did ICE cross-reference Pedro’s statements with whatever documents exist related to a prior arrest and conviction? Were any efforts made to establish whether he suffers from a mental disability? Did he knowingly sign a voluntary deportation order, or was he somehow coerced? How can this scenario be prevented in the future?
Haley said she was unable to answer any more questions on the Guzman case or the particulars of his re-entry into the country because of the ongoing litigation between the government and the ACLU. So reporters had only the word of the Guzman family and its lawyers to try to piece together what happened to Pedro between his deportation 89 days ago and his reunification with his mother. In the end, no one will truly know what happened except Pedro and Maria Carbajal, who even under the pressure of media questioning maintained the focused and measured certainty of a mother with a mission.
“Like I said he would be, he was afraid of the police in Mexico,” she said after the news conference, standing in the ACLU building’s gated rear parking lot. “I know that little by little, he will tell me what happened. He speaks to me more than anyone else. With time, I will get more reaction from him.”