LOS ANGELES – A Honduran citizen living in Los Angeles was wrongly deported in October, and went on to die in last month's massive prison fire in his home country, immigration officials said Friday.
Nelson Avila-Lopez, 20, was mistakenly deported in October, and was one of the 360 inmates who died in the Feb. 14 fire at the Comayagua prison in Honduras, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told KPCC radio in a statement.
Four years earlier in an attempt to avoid gang recruitment in Honduras, Avila-Lopez crossed the border illegally at age 16 to be with his mother in Los Angeles, KPCC reported.
In September he was detained and slated for deportation, but his lawyer argued Avila-Lopez would face danger from gang members if he had to go back to Honduras, and a stay was automatically granted so his case could be reviewed.
Avila-Lopez's lawyer, Joseph Huprich, said he talked to the deportation officer and verified the hold status.
"That was the last thing we heard until we got a call from the mother saying, `He was just sent out last night,"' Huprich told KPCC, saying the deportation came just over two weeks after they'd been assured the delay was noted.
ICE said in the statement that the deportation was probably the result of a breakdown in communication between the agency and the immigration court. ICE officials said they weren't notified of the judge's stay until the day after Lopez was back in Honduras.
But the Department of Justice told KPCC that it sent ICE the court documents in a timely manner.
ICE, the agency that deported Avila-Lopez, also points out that in November an immigration judge denied Avila-Lopez's motion to reopen his case, and he would have been deported regardless.
"ICE goes to great lengths to ensure no stays are in place, nor court actions pending, prior to affecting an alien's removal," the agency's statement said.
Avila-Lopez, suspected of gang affiliation, was sent to the badly overcrowded Comayagua prison just after his return to Honduras. The prison was teeming with inmates who had ties to gangs with roots in Southern California.
Four months later, before he'd been convicted of a crime, Avila-Lopez died in the world's deadliest prison blaze in a century.
Avila-Lopez's mother is now in Honduras seeking her son's remains, believed to be among the many badly burned bodies that will need DNA testing for identification.