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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Program Spotlight: The Deportation Research Clinic

Playing Our Part in a Complex, Interconnected World

The world has urgent need for universities that work across borders to address and help find solutions to global challenges such as climate change, migration, global health and national security. Home to some of the world’s brightest minds, Northwestern is excited to play our part, building on the extensive work taking place across the university and supporting our faculty, staff and students as they learn from and serve the world.

One particularly timely case in point is the work of The Northwestern Deportation Research Clinic, which has developed a significant body of research helping to inform the academic community and the general public. 


Program Spotlight: The Deportation Research Clinic

If you were born in the United States and have lived here your whole life, you likely do not worry about ever having to wake up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail. You probably do not think you will be forced into a deportation hearing without an attorney if you cannot afford one. But according to Professor Jaqueline Stevens, founding Director of the Deportation Research Clinic, thousands of Americans are subject to this experience every year.

“There’s a contradiction between due process and what an ICE officer decides to do,” Stevens says. ICE has no legal jurisdiction over U.S. citizens. But ambiguous evidentiary guidelines, shoddy investigations, or even spur-of-the-moment decisions by officers can land U.S. citizens in ICE custody. The system does not assume innocence until proven guilty; ICE targets are forced to prove their citizenship in court or face deportation. 

The process of proving one’s nationality seems like it should be easy, but it’s not. As Prof. Stevens tells me, even a U.S. passport may not be deemed sufficient evidence. Respondents may be asked to provide birth certificates, have parents testify, provide proofs of address and parents’ addresses going back decades, and more.

Months or years later after your detainment, when you have finally made your way through the immigration courts’ backlog of cases and it is time for your hearing, you are not guaranteed a lawyer if you cannot afford one. Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court case that provides public attorneys to defendants who cannot afford otherwise them, only applies to criminal cases. Although there may be criminal ramifications from illegally entering the United States, immigration hearings are considered civil cases, and respondents there are not protected by Gideon. Stevens has been researching political theories of membership for decades, and in 2013 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as recognition of her distinguished scholarly record, including her original work on the deportation of U.S. citizens.


Striving Toward Two Goals

To fix the numerous systemic institutional problems that lead to U.S. citizens being treated as slaves and ultimately deported from their homeland is a colossal undertaking, but Prof. Stevens and her student assistants at the Deportation Research Clinic are doing as much as they can to do just that. Prof. Stevens boils it down to two succinct goals:

  1. Protect due process rights of everyone in deportation proceedings by protecting the rights of U.S. citizens.
  2. Make it too expensive to deport people by prohibiting for-profit prisons from exploiting those in their custody through their work programs.


Clinic Research and Lawsuits Against the Private Prison Industry

Off a corridor underneath Scott Hall on Northwestern’s Evanston Campus, I met with Prof. Stevens and a few members from her team of student assistants. Together, they attempt to protect citizens who have contacted them because they have been or could be deported. This means obtaining information from the government used in scholarship, journalism, deportation proceedings, and lawsuits for claiming damages be awarded to deported U.S. citizens and challenging the dollar-per-day wages paid by the private prison industry.  Attorneys partnering with the Clinic, especially Nashville-based attorney Andrew Free, use the documents obtained by the Clinic to file lawsuits against ICE and private prisons. Since 2014, findings from Clinic research and a law review article have been used in class action lawsuits on behalf of people held in private prisons.  

On November 18, 2019 a federal judge in California certified classes of those in GEO custody (facilities operated under contract with The GEO Group, Inc. GEO which specializes in privatized detention, corrections, and mental health treatment) for relief based on claims of trafficking, minimum wage violations, and unjust enrichment. The case goes before a jury in early 2020. If the plaintiffs win, GEO will be barred from forcing people to work and will need to pay damages. Stevens estimates this will cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.  

The Clinic is still obtaining new documents from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation tied to the private prison labor programs and using these for scholarship and journalism, including opinion pieces in The New York Times, a law review article co-authored with former Farrell Fellow Elizabeth Meehan, and a project on the global rise of new surveillance technologies targeting the regional and cross-border movement of populations and individuals. Stevens explains that the endeavor is being pushed by military and intelligence interests and disguised as health related.


Northwestern Students Play an Important Role

While Stevens is on the phone with a colleague at a nonprofit journalism venue, School of Education and Social Policy senior Matt Casler is furiously scrubbing through documents to track down a ghost – proof that a senior citizen’s mother resided in the U.S. for at least 10 years… 10 years prior to his birth in the 1950s, if his claim to citizenship is to be upheld. The victim, Jeff, spent his entire life driving trucks, and now works part time for Amazon. He was wrongfully deported as a teenager and is now unable to collect his Social Security benefits.  Because of new protocols, he is worried that if he tries to straighten out the mess on his own, he will be deported. Casler also accompanied Stevens and then rising seniors, Eva Jefferson Paterson Fellow Isaiah Mendoza and Farrell Fellow Katherine Tierney to Houston last summer, where they documented the failures of immigration court judges to make inquiries that could ascertain U.S. citizenship. Casler and Prof. Stevens when they returned then worked to bring legal action against twelve different government bodies for violating the FOIA, legislation that the Clinic relies on for obtaining documents to produce scholarship as well as assist U.S. citizens and hold accountable the government for misconduct in the work programs.

Next to him, Medill sophomore Daisy Conant maintains the Clinic’s database of current FOIA requests, responses, and cases. She’s also compiling research for the Clinic to share with journalists, attorneys, and human rights groups that shows how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services misuses radiographs in determining children’s ages. The research, to which sophomore and Posner Fellow Khadeejah Milner contributed, was featured last summer on “This American Life” and will be used for an essay forthcoming in the American Journal of Public Health.

As Conant explained to me, the government pays dentists to take dental X-rays for radiographs dentists elsewhere rely on for determining the ages of unaccompanied migrant children in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), such as those who crossed the Mexican border. Legally, children in Border Patrol custody need to be transferred to more hospitable shelters run by ORR no longer than 72 hours after they are apprehended. If a radiograph analysis by a remote dentist states that they are not actually children, however, ICE picks them up. The problem? Radiographs lack scientific validity for these purposes. Federal courts have tossed out ORR age redeterminations relying on radiographs as a single source of evidence.  Nonetheless, ORR continues to misuse these findings, Prof. Stevens tells me. 

The real problem behind the deportation of U.S. citizens, the exploitation of migrants by for-profit prisons, and the misclassification of children as adults, as Prof. Stevens puts it, is that “When the government has discretion with few limits, due to the unique deference to law enforcement for policies tied to “national security” and borders, then misconduct is inevitable.”

“These are failures of one government agency to match pieces of paper provided and maintained in a database from another agency,” Stevens explains, sounding irritated as we discuss the case of Peter Brown. Brown was born in Philadelphia, but in 2018 ICE arrested him after confusing him with another Peter Brown, a Jamaican. In the media, the story was covered as a ‘silly mix-up’ by ICE – overlooking the ways that the entire deportation system is based on flawed records, as Prof. Stevens sees it. She was interviewed by NPR regarding this case, so I asked what her thoughts are on getting the public engaged with these stories in a more appropriate way.


Shining a Light on the Issue

“Journalists are beginning to focus on the trauma experienced when people who believed they are U.S. citizens discover they are noncitizens,” said Stevens. She pointed out that their coverage is drawing in part on Citizenship in Question: Evidentiary Birthright and Statelessness, a collection of case studies about questions of citizenship in over twenty countries which she co-edited with University of Arizona’s Prof. Benjamin Lawrance.  “Instead of showing the need for more records and identity cards, the essays highlight the silliness of governments sorting people based on crude taxonomies of birth, borders, and the documentation of ancestors and their residency.”

Stevens and her students have so far published a significant body of research for the academic community as well as the general public, with Clinic research appearing in the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and more. Since litigation based on Stevens’ research against the for-profit prisons that run the ICE jails, their share prices have lost half their value. She admits that it is hard to keep up with policy changes – much less all of the government data the Clinic relies on. But the media can only focus so much attention on immigration and wrongful detainment, so academic bodies like the Clinic need to press on.

For more information on work done by the Clinic, including efforts on behalf Mark Lyttle, an American citizen born in North Carolina who suffers from bipolar disorder and cognitive disabilities, visit the clinic’s website. ⧫