A decorated US Marine Corps veteran, who a federal judge ruled was an American citizen, is facing deportation to Mexico in a case that has been criticized as a cruel and extraordinary application of immigration laws.
The US government's ongoing effort to deport George Ybarra, who is currently locked up in an Arizona detention center, has shed light on the vulnerabilities of foreign-born Americans who have served in the military, along with the deportation threats that can plague even those who are deemed to be citizens and have deep ties to the country.
Ybarra, who was honorably discharged after serving in the Persian Gulf war and earning numerous badges and medals, is facing deportation due to a criminal history that his family says is tied to mental health struggles and post-traumatic stress disorder from his service. While there have been growing concerns about the removal of veterans and the harsh policies of deporting people for minor crimes, Ybarra's case is particularly troubling to immigrant rights' advocates given a judge's acknowledgement that he is US citizen.
"George hopes he will be able to stay in the country he fought for," Luis Parra, Ybarra's attorney, told the Guardian. "He is a third-generation [US] citizen … It would be a very extreme hardship for George to have to relocate to Mexico."
George Ybarra during his time as a US Marine. Photo from Tucson Sentinel.
Ybarra, whose story was first reported in the Tucson Sentinel, has a complex immigration and citizenship battle dating back more than a decade, including deportation threats under Barack Obama's administration.
Ybarra, also known as Jorge Ibarra-Lopez, was born in Nogales in Mexico, just south of the Arizona border, in 1964, according to his court filings. He moved to the US months after he was born, and his maternal grandfather was a US citizen, born in Bisbee, Arizona, his lawyers wrote. Ybarra has long argued that he has "derivative citizenship," meaning he is a citizen by virtue of his mother's status.
An immigration judge eventually agreed that there was "sufficient evidence" that the 52-year-old father of five should be considered a US citizen, but the US Department of Homeland Security challenged that decision in 2011 and has since continued to try to deport him, records show.
The deportation proceedings stem in part from a number of criminal offenses, including drug-related charges. He was also convicted of firing two rounds through the front door of his home in Phoenix in 2011 in the direction of two police officers, according to the Sentinel. The paper reported that no one was hurt and that Ybarra said he was suffering from a PTSD-induced episode of delusion at the time and believed federal authorities were coming to "take away" his family.
Attorney Luis Parra. Image from Tucson Sentinel.
Ybarra ultimately served a seven-year sentence in state prison for aggravated assault, but instead of returning to his family after he completed his time, he was transferred into the custody of federal immigration authorities last month. Ybarra and his family now fear he could soon be deported.
Parra argued that Ybarra should be released while the ongoing dispute about his citizenship is resolved. US Citizenship and Immigration Services had previously denied his application for a certificate of citizenship, but there are numerous ways he can have his status formally recognized, according to Parra.
His family has argued that he should get treatment and other government support as a disabled veteran with PTSD.
Photo courtesy of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"He basically has no family in Mexico," said Parra, noting that Ybarra's children and grandchildren and other relatives in Arizona are all US citizens. "He has a very supportive family living in the Phoenix area, including his mother, who depends on George."
Ybarra is distraught and worried about his continued detention, Parra said. In a Sentinel interview last month in an Arizona state prison, Ybarra said, "I've got a lot of anger, a lot of anxiety over this. They know I'm a citizen, they know I'm a combat veteran. I don't see where they've ever shown that they care."
A spokeswoman for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to questions about Ybarra's case, but said in a statement that the agency "does not knowingly place US citizens into removal proceedings", adding, "ICE deportation officers arrest only those aliens for which the agency has probable cause to believe are amenable to removal from the United States."
When ICE does detain US citizens, the statement said, it's usually because there is a misunderstanding about their status.
Image from Department of Homeland Security.
"The job for ICE deportation officers is further complicated by some aliens who falsely assert US citizenship in order to evade deportation, which is not uncommon," the statement continued.
A Northwestern University analysis of government data found that hundreds of US citizens have, in fact, been detained by immigration authorities.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and expert on military cases, said the deportation of veterans has been an ongoing challenge under both Obama and Donald Trump, but that she has never seen a case like Ybarra where the government threatens to deport someone ruled a citizen by a judge.
"If you can deport this guy, you can also try to deport all kinds of other people," she said.