Thursday, July 12, 2007

Waiting for Pedro Guzman

On May 12, 2007 U.S.-citizen Pedro Guzman was oxymoronically if not illegally deported from Los Angeles to Tijuana. (You can find earlier posts on the details of the deportation by clicking on the Guzman tag to the right.) He's still gone and we're still waiting for him to be found.

The title here recalls Samuel Beckett's absurdist play "Waiting for Godot" (1939), about... well, we don't quite know and neither do the characters, whose relation to Godot is unclear. We're led to believe Godot's arrival is imminent and important, as well as impossible and irrelevant.

I talked by phone yesterday with Michael Soller, spokesperson for the ACLU in Southern California, which is representing Guzman's family in an effort to pressure the U.S. government to locate him. Guzman is still missing, despite the services of a private investigative firm now searching for him. "The family gets tips that haven't panned out," Soller said. The latest is "from a truck driver who thinks he may have hired Pedro Guzman in Tijuana and taken him to Juarez. It's one theory that we're looking into right now."

Soller conveyed that the family's position is that Pedro Guzman is not fully functional and that any document he signed consenting to his deportation after he served his jail sentence in the L.A. county jail was a result of confusion and illiteracy, not a premeditated statement of an incorrect nationality. This raises questions about how to evaluate mental competence, a tricky matter in general and especially fraught when the person in question is absent.

Is Guzman in Mexico because he wants to be, for his own personal reasons, and we are waiting for someone who would prefer us to forget about him so he can quietly return on his own terms, or is Guzman a lost soul who requires the resources of the U.S. government if he is to be reunited with his family? This controversy about Guzman is not of his doing--he did not set out to make a point about the idiocy of U.S. deportation policies--and may not even be his preference.

The ACLU is advancing a claim of Guzman's incompetence, in its public statements as well as legal briefs. Soller mentioned in our phone call that Guzman's family says he can drive only by following other people and that he doesn't have his brother's cellphone number memorized, but can call only after consulting a piece of paper where he has it in writing. Pedro Guzman's brother told the ACLU that Pedro held a job requiring few skills (laying cement) and was able to pass a driver's license test by memorizing the answers. Moreover, as I wrote earlier, the manager of the Lancaster airport where Guzman was initially arrested, who knew nothing of the deportation controversy, told me that his behavior on March 31, 2007 fell under the "category of mental illness." (Guzman tried boarding a charter airplane preparing to leave and persisted until the police arrived.)

Of course without my cellphone I too would require a scrap of paper to call people; and I have a few friends with PhDs who have not been able to perform the memorization feats mastered by Guzman and can only go wherever their friends or a bus driver take them. I asked Soller why he thought Guzman was able to call his brother on May 12, but did not call again. Soller said he did not know why that was but that he had heard Guzman was "aloof" and therefore unlikely to impose on strangers--though of course at one point he did use someone else's cell phone.
Guzman's actual mental state notwithstanding, one pattern does seem apparent.

Lying behind Guzman's unrequested notoriety are the acts of someone who was doing his best to leave Lancaster: he was arrested for barging onto a charter airplane and refusing to leave; and then for whatever reason, when he was released after serving jail time he ends up leaving town by becoming--willingly or not--an alien. This does not mean that Guzman is doing this in a calculated, logical fashion, but at some level his behavior perhaps suggests a desire to be elsewhere.

This speculation interests me but I also believe that, right or wrong, it is deeply problematic. Instead of focusing on Guzman's motivations, attention should be directed to the mindset behind our immigration laws and the second-class legal status afforded those who are not born here. At several points Soller used the word "surreal" to describe the legal landscape of Guzman's case, including the contradiction between the Judge's verbal statements of concern and his written opinion letting the DHS do what it please.

Soller's right. It is surreal that a country of immigrants should be quizzing anyone, including jail inmates, on their place of birth and then using this information to move them outside the borders of where they live. The irrationality and dysfunctionality requiring serious investigation is not that of Pedro Guzman, but the population management policies of the U.S. government. As I mentioned in a previous post, U.S.-Americans have been known to use nationality strategically--by falsely representing their citizenship. If it turns out that Guzman did so, that would not inoculate the U.S. government from charges of wrong-doing, but be evidence of a more hilarious culpability, that the paranoia around citizenship would turn into an early release from jail and a free one-way ticket to Mexico.

To be very clear, there is no evidence that this is what happened with Guzman, but there is nothing in our law or the record of how Guzman was handled that would contravene this possibility. To expect a legal system that is insanely xenophobic to responsibly determine anyone's mental competence is like asking Hannibal Lecter to give out Eagle Scout badges, and anyone who deports a resident is not entirely sane but someone with a widely shared mental incapacity. As thousands of academic studies--from history to economics--indicate, it is lunatic policy to make people live here or there because of place of birth; people who insist on this are not of sound mind.

In the event, I now have what I believe is a complete set of all the court filings associated Guzman v. Chertoff, the government's case history, so to speak, and I will be reviewing the legal arguments both sides are making tomorrow. The motives of the government's actions toward all residents, aliens and citizens alike, are far more important than the unknown and possibly unknowable circumstances of Guzman's deportation.

As for the facts on the ground, stay tuned as LA Weekly reporter Daniel Hernandez soon will be writing in that publication on his travels to Tijuana with Guzman's mother. We spoke a couple of days ago and he has an interesting story to tell.

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