A 15-year-old Santa Ana girl was detained for three days in Tijuana before a lawyer was able to prove to Immigration and Naturalization Service agents that she was a U.S. citizen, an INS official confirmed Saturday.
The girl, identified only as Evelia, twice was barred from re-entering the country after visiting relatives in Tijuana last weekend. She was carrying a photostat of her birth certificate but was denied entrance until an attorney--who was paid $250 by the girl's mother, an illegal immigrant--was able to show the INS inspectors an original document Friday.
Latino community leaders said Saturday that the border inspectors' refusal to allow the girl, a sophomore at Saddleback High School, to re-enter the United States even though she had a copy of her birth certificate was a clear indication that skin color is the primary criterion agents use to screen people at checkpoints.
Evelia was born in San Diego County and has lived in Santa Ana for two years, but she speaks broken English because she spent most of her childhood in Tijuana.
Nativo Lopez, head of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Latino rights group, said cases such as Evelia's are "a very regular occurrence" at the San Ysidro border crossing. He said brown-skinned people who are free to enter the United States are often detained there.
Robert Rich, INS operations supervisor at the San Ysidro border station, refused to discuss Evelia's case but said his inspectors have a difficult task trying to determine whether people trying to enter the United States have proper and legal entry documents. He added that about 75 people with "frivolous, false claims" are turned away each day.
"Too many people are crossing every day. The numbers are just horrendous," Rich said. "We do our best with what we have, and sometimes we just can't do it all right."
The INS official said anyone denied entrance to the United States has the right to an exclusionary hearing to challenge the detainment, but he added that "most of them don't ask for one, because they are phony to begin with."
Lopez said that alternative is not always easy to pursue.
"In this instance, the mother was able to find a lawyer," he said. "But a lot of the time, people don't have the resources to challenge this kind of thing."
Cites Deportation Case
"I don't see this as being different from the case of Mario Moreno-Lopez," said Lopez.
Moreno-Lopez, a legal U.S. resident, at the age of 14 was taken from a Santa Ana street by INS agents on Feb. 15, 1984, and deported to Mexico. When his father reclaimed him in Tijuana six days later, the youth said he had told the INS he was an illegal alien because he feared that agents would beat him.
Amin David Jr., head of Amigos de Anaheim, also questioned the border inspectors' judgment in detaining Evelia after she produced the copy of her birth certificate.
"Once again, it points out that it is on the basis of your skin color that you are going to be scrutinized. It points out the need for all of us to be aware that in a situation such as this, we must have the correct (entry) documents," David said, adding:
"But I would have said a photocopy of a birth certificate was adequate."