Presumed Illegal in San Antonio

How a U.S. citizen in San Antonio was wrongly deported by Border Patrol

A San Antonio man was stopped in June by a Border Patrol agent who refused to believe he was a citizen and had him deported to Nuevo Laredo the next day, where he was kidnapped by cartel members and held for ransom.

Julio Cesar Ovalle, 24, said in an interview that he was not released until days later when the FBI intervened with Mexican authorities.

The incident happened in 2018. Officials will not verify that a Border Patrol agent stopped him without cause June 11 and asked for his “papers” as he walked along Portranco Road to his neighborhood H-E-B where he is employed. Officials did verify that he was kidnapped in Mexico and held for ransom, then freed with the help of U.S. authorities.

The family reports the agent asked Ovalle for his “papers,” to which the lawsuit said Ovalle told him he was a U.S. citizen born in California and lives in San Antonio but he did not have his identification on him, just money and his cellphone.

Ovalle asked the agent if he could call someone to bring him his ID card, birth certificate and passport to prove his citizenship but the agent refused and began deportation proceedings, the claim said.

The next day, Border Patrol agents took Ovalle to Laredo where his immigration status was questioned and he was told to sign documents despite Ovalle’s inability to read and speak English.

Ovalle’s attorney Javier Espinoza filed an administrative claim, which is required before a lawsuit can be filed in court, seeking $1 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which includes the U.S. Border Patrol, for the alleged wrongful deportation.

Federal officials have up to six months to respond to the administrative claim.

According to documents and information provided by Espinoza and Ovalle to reporters, Ovalle was born at a hospital in Los Angeles to a U.S. citizen mother and a legal resident father, but raised in Mexico until he moved to San Antonio nine years ago. He has a U.S. passport.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, of which Border Patrol is a part of, said the agency does not comment on matters under litigation, and the FBI said it could not comment on whether it had a hand in helping free Ovalle.

But a source told the San Antonio Express-News that a distraught Ovalle may have called 911 himself, claimed he was an undocumented immigrant and precipitated a response from Border Patrol that ended with his deportation.

Asked about the differing accounts, Espinoza said Ovalle’s brother was told by law officers that someone had called 911. But Espinoza said Ovalle denied he made the call and stands by his story.

Espinoza said that regardless of why Ovalle was detained, he was deported without due process and forced to sign paperwork in English that he did not understand. Ovalle attended special education classes at Stephens High, but did not graduate, according to the three-page claim.

“Even if he had a mental episode, and I’m not saying that he did, he’s an American citizen,” Espinoza said, adding that Ovalle should not have been deported. “They should have held him and processed him, or let him call his family.”

Ovalle, in an interview at his Northwest Side home earlier Friday, said he believes he was targeted by the Border Patrol simply because he is Hispanic and speaks little English.

“It was an injustice and racism, all because I don’t understand or speak English well,” Ovalle said in Spanish.

Ovalle said he did not have identification because he had left his wallet in a car his father took to work, and only had some cash and his cell phone in his pocket. Ovalle said he told the agent that he had a passport and other documentation showing his U.S. citizenship at home, but the agent would not listen and instead took Ovalle’s cell phone and transported him to the Border Patrol station in Cotulla.

He said he was deported to Nuevo Laredo the next day. According to the claim, Ovalle was deported without seeing a judge, making a phone call and without access to an attorney or an opportunity to validate his citizenship.

Ovalle said his cell phone was returned to him on the bridge and he promptly called his father, who told him to wait for him. As Ovalle waited outside an immigration center in Nuevo Laredo with another deportee, four men came up and forced them into a truck, Ovalle said. He said he was held in a house with about 80 other immigrants by armed men.

After being deported to Mexico, Ovalle was able to call his father, who said he would bring Ovalle’s passport, ID card and birth certificate and pick him up.

The claim, however, said Ovalle was kidnapped by cartel members while he was waiting outside the Mexican Immigration Center. The claim added Ovalle was taken to a house outside Nuevo Laredo. 

Ovalle’s family said they received calls from the cartel members demanding ransom money in exchange for their son.

“I had a panic attack and I was very scared,” Ovalle said, adding that he was trembling and couldn’t answer one of the captors, who slapped him and told him to calm down.

Ovalle said when his older brother called his cell phone, the captors took the phone away and demanded $4,500 in ransom.

Ovalle’s family called Laredo police, who referred them to the FBI, Espinoza said. FBI agents reached out to their counterparts in Mexico, according to Espinoza.

At one point, Ovalle said, he was asked by one of his captors, “Who is Julio Cesar Ovalle?” and when he answered, he was taken back to Nuevo Laredo, where he eventually was released at one of the international bridges.

Special agent Michelle Lee, spokeswoman for the FBI in San Antonio field office that includes Laredo, said the agency cannot comment on whether it had a hand in Ovalle’s release.

“U.S. citizens and others have been kidnapped along the border,” Lee said. “We have assisted them in the past. It’s important that family members reach out to law enforcement if such a situation arises.”

Federal tort law requires those who claim they were wronged by a federal agency to first file an administrative claim with the agency. If the matter is not resolved within the six-month response period, the government can be sued in federal court.

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