It was Jose Arturo Gonzalez Carranza’s 22nd birthday when he found himself suddenly alone to take care of his 3-year-old daughter. Army officials called him at work to tell him that his wife’s military police unit had been attacked in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. She didn’t survive.
The small family was getting by with help from his wife’s parents until last week, when another crisis struck: Mr. Gonzalez Carranza was deported back to Mexico, a country he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager. His daughter, Evelyn, now 12, was left parentless, living with her grandparents, who share custody.
“I was in shock,” Mr. Gonzalez Carranza, 30, said of the moment he found himself in the back of a government vehicle in Mexico. Questions had raced through his mind. Why was he there? What would happen to his daughter? Hadn’t she been through enough?
As it turned out, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials reversed their decision, and Mr. Gonzalez Carranza returned home to Phoenix on Monday. But the case that raised an outcry in Arizona is one of many that have slipped through the cracks of an increasingly strained immigration system.
Two trends — record-breaking numbers of incoming families seeking asylum and increasing arrests of immigrants without legal status already living in the country — are adding to the immigration court backlog, which now exceeds 800,000 cases. Officials throughout the system, from Border Patrol officers to government prosecutors, to the judges who oversee deportations, say they are struggling to keep up with the demands of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement agenda.
There is a long history of wrongful deportations that span several administrations and they are only rarely reversed, according to immigration lawyers.
In one recent case, Muneer Subaihani, an Iraqi immigrant who had lived in the United States for 25 years, was deported in 2017, in spite of a court order prohibiting the deportation of about 1,400 Iraqis. But he was only allowed back into the country in January — and it was the first time that anyone from Iraq who had been erroneously expelled had been allowed back in, the American Civil Liberties Union said.
Last year, another man identified in court documents only as W.G.A. was brought back to the United States after being wrongfully deported to El Salvador while his asylum case was under appeal — a situation that should have triggered an automatic temporary stay.
“It’s a chronic problem,” said Scott Shuchart, who worked in the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office from 2010 to 2018. “The number of cases that fall through the cracks of that system, it may be very low as a percentage, but it’s certainly nontrivial as a raw count of cases.”
Mr. Gonzalez Carranza was lucky, according to his lawyer.
The problems began last January when Mr. Gonzalez Carranza, who had entered the country illegally, went to his lawyer to renew a temporary permit to live in the United States that he had been granted based on his deceased wife’s military service. They learned that a removal case against him had been opened even though the permit was still valid, but he hadn’t heard about it because the notices had been sent to an old address. Months earlier, it turned out, he had been ordered deported.
Knowing that he could be arrested at any time, Mr. Gonzalez Carranza and his lawyer moved quickly to prepare documents to halt the deportation. But before the papers were filed, immigration agents arrested Mr. Gonzalez Carranza on April 8, pulling him over as he was driving to work. He said he remembered flashing lights and then “a lot of cops around me pointing guns, screaming, saying ‘Open the door!’”
Mr. Gonzalez Carranza had first entered the United States on his own at the age of 14 and moved in with an uncle in Phoenix. Rather than going to school, he started working for a carpeting company and met the woman who became his wife, Barbara Vieyra, at a nightclub for teenagers.
The couple moved in together, had their daughter, Evelyn, and they married. Soon after, Ms. Vieyra joined the Army to help support her family. She served in a military police unit in Korea and was 22 when she was killed in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, according to news reports.
Mr. Gonzalez Carranza remained in the United States without permanent legal status, sharing custody of his daughter with his wife’s parents. His wife’s military service should have allowed him to remain in the country legally until April 20, 2019.
He could make none of that clear to the officers who came to arrest and deport him. During the days he spent in Mexico, Mr. Gonzalez Carranza said, he passed the time inside a Mexican government office because it was close enough to the border that his American cellphone still worked and he was able to talk with his lawyer. He slept at a migrant shelter, mostly filled with people waiting to seek asylum in the United States.
Ezequiel Hernandez, his lawyer, said his client was finally allowed back into the United States on Monday after a government lawyer notified him that Mr. Gonzalez Carranza should go to the legal port of entry in Nogales, Mexico, within an hour. Mr. Hernandez said he was not certain why immigration authorities reversed their decision, but believed that media reports about the deportation may have contributed to the decision.
On Tuesday, a day after returning to Arizona, Mr. Gonzalez Carranza said he had still not seen his daughter, who was with her grandparents, but was looking forward to seeing her.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed Mr. Gonzalez Carranza’s deportation and said in a statement that he had been permitted to re-enter the United States “pending adjudication of his immigration proceedings.”
Mr. Hernandez said he planned to argue that his client should be granted permanent legal status in the United States because of the extreme hardship that his daughter would face, compounded by the loss of her mother, if her father were to be deported.
“Usually it’s people that have no resources, no attorney,” Mr. Hernandez said. “What would happen if he didn’t have all of these things? He’d be in Nogales today and you would never know.”