Crime & Justice

Honduran LA resident accidentally deported, then dies in prison fire

Nelson Avila Lopez and his sisters, in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the Avila Lopez family.
Nelson Avila Lopez and his sisters, in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the Avila Lopez family.

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Nelson Avila-Lopez came to Los Angeles when he was 16. Gang members in his native Honduras had been trying to recruit him for years, so he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in order to be reunited with his mother, who was living in Los Angeles.

But Avila-Lopez could not escape the gang affiliation nor his illegal status, and last September, by then 20 years old, he was detained by U.S. federal immigration authorities and processed for deportation. Avila-Lopez's lawyer, warning that his client could face harm if he was returned to Honduras, filed a motion on Sept. 30, which automatically granted him a "stay" — a temporary reprieve to his deportation, pending a judge's review of his case.

“We then took that order, sent it in to the deportation officer that was in charge of his deportation, talked to him over the phone, confirmed that he received the order and that he wasn’t going to send him out," said Joseph Huprich, Avila-Lopez’s attorney, who does pro bono work for Honduran immigrants in Los Angeles. "That was the last thing that we heard until we got a call from the mother saying ‘He was just sent out last night.’”

On Oct. 19, 2011, two-and-a-half weeks after the immigration court had halted his deportation, Avila-Lopez was taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Arizona. The next day he was sent back to Honduras.

Because he had been suspected of gang involvement in his home country, he was immediately jailed at the Comayagua Prison. As the months went on, Huprich’s law firm tried to figure out why Avila-Lopez had been deported despite the judge’s stay.

On Feb. 14 a fire erupted at Comayagua Prison. The cause is still a mystery, but what is known is that the prison was at double its capacity and that only six guards were on duty that day.

Nelson Avila-Lopez was one of 358 inmates who died, most of them young men. He had not yet been convicted of any crime.

“I know that there are certain procedures immigration agencies have to follow before actually getting someone on the flight," said Silvia Ceja Gonzalez, a legal assistant with the Huprich Law Firm who was assigned the case. "There are logs, and there is information and databases that they have to check before they can actually release someone to fly out.”

In response to an interview request, ICE sent a written statement that says Avila-Lopez’s deportation was probably the product of a breakdown in communications between the agency and the local immigration court. Only after he was deported to Honduras, the email said, did ICE learn that a Los Angeles immigration judge had issued him a stay of removal.

But the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, contradicts ICE. The office says its records show proof of service. For its part, the Huprich law firm sent ICE the court documents in a timely manner prior to Avila-Lopez’s deportation.

Avila-Lopez’s mother is now back in Honduras, hoping to find her son’s remains. Authorities there have not been able to identify his body nor most of the other victims’. Many were so badly burned that they will only be identified through DNA testing.