A U.S. citizen who was wrongly deported to Tijuana last year while in the custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the county and the federal government, alleging that his constitutional rights were violated.
Pedro Guzman, 30, who is developmentally disabled, was missing for nearly three months before he was found in Mexico and released to his family, his attorneys said. Guzman had been dropped off in Tijuana with $3 in his pocket and spent much of his time wandering Baja California on foot, eating from dumpsters and bathing in rivers, they said.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Guzman and his mother, Maria Carbajal, in U.S. District Court and named the Sheriff's Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement among the defendants. The family is seeking unspecified damages.
Guzman's ordeal began when he was arrested last March after he entered a private airport in Lancaster and tried to board a plane, the lawsuit states. He pleaded guilty to trespassing and was sentenced to 120 days in county jail, but that was later reduced to 40 days.
On May 11, before his sentence was up, Guzman called his family from Tijuana and told them he had been deported, according to the lawsuit. Sheriff's officials had turned Guzman over to federal immigration agents.
But Guzman and immigration officials differ over what happened.
ICE officials said Guzman was deported after he told agents he was born in Nayarit, Mexico, and was in the U.S. without authorization.
"Mr. Guzman repeatedly told ICE officers and Customs and Border Patrol officials and others that he was born in Mexico and signed a document agreeing to voluntarily return," said Lori Haley, ICE spokeswoman.
Guzman's lawyers dismissed ICE's claims as "unmitigated lies" during a news conference Wednesday attended by Carbajal and other family members.
"He never said that he was born in Mexico," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU, which with a private law firm is representing the plaintiffs.
Rosenbaum also pointed out that several sheriff's documents, including the incident report filed after the arrest, showed that Guzman was a U.S. citizen.
Sheriff's officials also knew that Guzman complained of hearing voices while in custody and was prescribed anti-psychotic medication, according to his lawsuit.
Rosenbaum also criticized Sandra Figueras, the sheriff's custody agent who interviewed him about his citizenship status, as "inadequately trained."
"Our government treated the color of Mr. Guzman's skin as conclusive, irrefutable evidence that Peter was not and could not be a U.S. citizen," Rosenbaum said.
Sheriff's officials declined to comment Wednesday.
Guzman's mother and two brothers, Michael Guzman and Juan Carlos Chabes, said they wanted the government to acknowledge its wrongdoing.
"I want them to see that what they did was not right," said Carbajal, who tearily described spending several days wandering through Tijuana looking for her son, leaving fliers with his photo at the morgue, hospitals, churches and shelters.
When her money ran out after three days, she slept in the closet-sized backroom of a banana warehouse, where she was allowed to stay in exchange for cooking for the warehouse workers, according to the suit.
Since returning from Mexico, Guzman, who did not attend the news conference, has been terrified of strangers and has been unable to return to work, Carbajal said.
"He had some of these problems before, but now he's worse," Carbajal said. "I have to accompany him when we go out. He doesn't talk. His mind wanders."
ICE officials called Guzman's deportation an isolated incident.
"This is a one-of-a-kind case," ICE's Haley said.