Immigration

How Our Broken Immigration System Indirectly Killed Nelson Avila-Lopez

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Last month 358 inmates died in a Honduran prison fire when firefighters couldn't find a guard to unlock inmates' cells. Many of those inmates had not been tried. Some of them had not even been charged with a crime. One of those inmates, 20-year-old Nelson Avila-Lopez, was supposed to be at home in Los Angeles with his mother and sisters. Instead, he died last month in Comayagua Prison because of an ICE processing error. 

California's KPCC has the devastating story:  

Nelson Avila-Lopez came to Los Angeles when he was 16. Gang members in his native Honduras had been trying to recruit him for years, so he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in order to be reunited with his mother, who was living in Los Angeles.

But Avila-Lopez could not escape the gang affiliation nor his illegal status, and last September, by then 20 years old, he was detained by U.S. federal immigration authorities and processed for deportation. Avila-Lopez's lawyer, warning that his client could face harm if he was returned to Honduras, filed a motion to reopen his case. On Sept. 30, Avila-Lopez was automatically granted a "stay" — a temporary reprieve to his deportation, pending a judge's review of his case.

"We then took that order, sent it in to the deportation officer that was in charge of his deportation, talked to him over the phone, confirmed that he received the order and that he wasn't going to send him out," said Joseph Huprich, Avila-Lopez's attorney, who does pro bono work for Honduran immigrants in Los Angeles. "That was the last thing that we heard until we got a call from the mother saying 'He was just sent out last night.'"

On Oct. 19, 2011, two-and-a-half weeks after the immigration court had halted his deportation, Avila-Lopez was taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Arizona. The next day he was sent back to Honduras.

Because he had been suspected of gang involvement in his home country, he was immediately jailed at the Comayagua Prison. As the months went on, Huprich's law firm tried to figure out why Avila-Lopez had been deported despite the judge's stay.

On Feb. 14 a fire erupted at Comayagua Prison. The cause is still a mystery, but what is known is that the prison was at double its capacity and that only six guards were on duty that day.

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