ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
Last summer a U.S. citizen who is mentally disabled was deported to Mexico by mistake. He then went missing for nearly three months. Pedro Guzman is back home now. And today he is suing the federal government and Los Angeles County. His story has been taken up by critics of U.S. immigration policy.
KQED's Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ: Thirty-year-old Pedro Guzman was born and raised in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles. His family says he's cognitively impaired. For example, he can't read above a second grade level and he's unable to memorize basic information like a telephone number or an address.
Last spring, Guzman was arrested for trespassing in a vacant lot and writing graffiti. He was placed in an L.A. County jail. That's where, according to Guzman's lawyer, James Brosnahan, sheriff's deputies identified Guzman as a possible illegal immigrant.
Mr. JAMES BROSNAHAN (Lawyer): They started trolling in holding cells looking for Hispanics that they suspected might not be citizens. And that's how they decided to interview him in the first place.
SCHMITZ: Even though the L.A. County Sheriff's Department had records on file proving Guzman was a U.S. citizen, authorities mistakenly identified Guzman as a citizen of Mexico. He was handed over to immigration officials and on May 11th of last year, Pedro Guzman, a U.S. citizen, was deported to Mexico. His family had no idea.
He was dropped off in Tijuana and roamed around northern Mexico, lost, for 85 days. James Brosnahan believes it's a wonder that Guzman, with his limited cognitive abilities, survived.
Mr. BROSNAHAN: He, sad to say, got food out of garbage cans in Mexico. He washed himself in rivers. The pressure of it was terrible, and he tried to cope with it, tried to deal with it, tried to understand what was happening. And he didn't really understand what was going on.
SCHMITZ: Brosnahan represents the Guzman family in a lawsuit that will be filed today against the United States government and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for damages to Guzman.
Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the L.A. Country Sheriff's Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit but did offer one statement.
Mr. STEVE WHITMORE (L.A. County Sheriff's Department): We look forward to telling the whole story, and we don't believe that the whole story is being told right now.
SCHMITZ: Whitmore declined to elaborate. But in an e-mail Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wrote that a crucial fact has been buried in media reports. Guzman, she wrote, repeatedly told officials he was born in Mexico and signed a document agreeing to voluntarily return there. She added that Guzman's case was one-of-a-kind.
Maria Carvajal is Guzman's mother. After her son went missing she took time off from her job at a fast-food restaurant to search for her son at morgues and prisons throughout northern Mexico. When he was finally found at a U.S. border crossing and then returned home, Carvajal says she barely recognized her son.
Ms. MARIE CARVAJAL (Mother): (Through translator) To me he wasn't the same son who had left me months before. He wasn't well. He wouldn't talk. He was very thin, as if he hadn't eaten anything.
SCHMITZ: Carvajal says her son was so traumatized that it took him weeks to be able to speak comfortably with his own family. Guzman's case helped prompt a congressional hearing two weeks ago. A House subcommittee grilled Gary Mead of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, on Guzman's case, and others where U.S. citizens were mistaken for illegal immigrants.
Mr. GARY MEAD (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): ICE has the authority to consensually speak with people about whether or not...
Representative ZOE LOFGREN (Democrat, California): Well, that's not the question. The question is, who has the burden of proof?
Mr. MEAD: Well, I was about to tell you that. We - we have the burden of proof to determine if someone is a citizen.
SCHMITZ: Subcommittee chair and California Democrat Zoe Lofgren says she wasn't impressed by Mead's testimony.
Rep. LOFGREN: He didn't know anything and he couldn't answer any questions. And what he did say was defensive and not very helpful in terms of getting to the bottom of questions.
SCHMITZ: Lofgren says the Guzman lawsuit may help shine the light on the federal government's increasing reliance on local law enforcement to help enforce immigration law. L.A. County Sheriff's Department is one of dozens of law enforcement agencies nationwide that have entered into such agreements with the government.
Rep. LOFGREN: We'll see whether - if L.A. County gets sued, how much they want to stay with this program. I don't know. A court will decide what their liability is, but my guess is it's substantial.
SCHMITZ: L.A. County and the U.S. government have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.
For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.
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