summer palma

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When he was in prison, Lorenzo Palma strongly suspected he was an American citizen. He had spent his whole life in the United States, and he knew his grandfather was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1914.

Palma had served five years for an assault conviction and was about to be released on parole, but immigration officials had stopped his release because they wanted to deport him. They said he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.

So in the summer of 2014, Palma found himself among dozens of inmates about to face an immigration judge in Huntsville, Texas. “They would sit us by groups of 10 and they would start deporting left and right,” he said.

Getting the paperwork to prove his citizenship was hard: He didn’t have money to call his mother in El Paso, Texas, so he was forced to send letters asking her to find the documents.

When it was Palma’s turn in court, Judge Richard Walton was short. Palma tried to explain that he was an American. But Walton simply asked Palma if he wanted time to get a lawyer; Palma said yes. Court recordings obtained by NPR show that Palma then softly asked Walton what his chances were of staying in the country.

You Say You’re An American, But What If You Had To Prove It Or Be Deported?

Photos: Bree Lamb for NPR