To be an undocumented immigrant in America in 2018 is to know that no matter how much you love your country, your job, and your family, a single phone call can take them all away.
Over the last few months, local news reports across the country have described unusual U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activity. Dozens of detentions and deportations are bringing the debate on how to handle undocumented immigrants to a boiling point just as Congress tries to come to an agreement on border security and protections for undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
In Youngstown, Ohio, a Palestinian man who had been here for nearly 40 years was deported despite Congress approving a private bill that offered him a six month stay of deportation. In an unusual move, ICE simply refused to recognize the congressional directive and deported him anyway, separating him from four daughters, his wife and multiple businesses he owned in Youngstown. Across the state in Cincinnati, a man named Yancarlos Mendez — the sole financial provider and one of two caregivers for an American child who is paraplegic — was deported amidst a social media outcry. In Illinois, a U.S. Army veteran diagnosed with PTSD, living here on a green card with two children who are American citizens, is being detained for deportation because of a felony drug conviction. In New York, a prominent immigrant rights activist was arrested during a routine meeting with immigration officials, prompting a federal judge to order his release. In Michigan, a 39-year-old landscaper who lived here for nearly 30 years was deported back to Mexico. Moving video of the moment he said goodbye to his wife and children at the airport became a symbol of unjust ICE action across the country.
According to Detention Watch Network (DWN), a group working to challenge injustices in the immigration system, at least four well-known immigrant rights activists without violent criminal records were detained in the first few weeks of January alone.
On Jan. 11, in Denver, Colorado, Eliseo Jurado-Fernandez decided to make one last trip to Home Depot during a home renovation. But he never came home. Now, the 30-year-old Mexican immigrant fears he will be deported like others he's seen in the news recently. Jurado-Fernandez is an undocumented immigrant that has been living here for more than half his life. His father and both his children are American citizens, and his mother is a permanent U.S. resident. But, despite several attempts and the help of his parents, Jurado-Fernandez has been unable to obtain citizenship himself.
As he left for the Home Depot, he noticed two trucks behind him. They turned on their lights and Jurado-Fernandez realized this was the moment he had been dreading: he was being detained. Just as he had planned in case this moment ever came, he called his father and sent a message to his partner and the mother of his children, undocumented immigrant and activist Ingrid Encalada Latorre.
Jurado-Fernandez's arrest is part of a larger theme developing across the country. ICE is citing his illegal entry, a Driving While Impaired by Alcohol (DWIA) conviction and two misdemeanors — all from when he was a teenager — to justify his arrest. His family fears they could point to all four as a reason to deport him back to Mexico. But in the past, immigrant activists say, Jurado-Fernandez wouldn't have fit the profile of a priority deportation for ICE. We contacted him over the phone while he was in an ICE detention facility in Aurora, Colorado.
"I made mistakes but I don't know anyone who hasn't made mistakes in their life," Jurado-Fernandez told A Plus through an interpreter. "Those mistakes were made a long time ago and I don't think anyone should have to pay for a mistake for the rest of their life, especially when they have already paid with probation and jail time and all of that… I'm a different person."
The arrests and deportations have frightened undocumented immigrants across the country. Latorre says she rarely leaves the church where she is living in sanctuary, no longer goes to the door, and cannot take her children to school or their speech therapist. Churches and synagogues all across the country are protecting undocumented immigrants like Latorre by giving them a place to live in places of worship, "sensitive locations" where ICE is directed not to detain anyone.
Nery Lopez, a DACA recipient who immigrated from Mexico at the age of 4 and studies health care at Florida International University (FIU), told A Plus she has an app on her phone that counts down the days until her DACA protections expire. John Kim, an undocumented South Korean immigrant who overstayed his visa, told A Plus he cannot get a government ID, doesn't drive, avoids most travel (especially airports), and can't apply for any financial aid to help pay his way through college. He's staying in hopes of completing his education and finding work.
While President Barack Obama deported more undocumented immigrants than any president before him — over two million — the detentions and deportations happening now seem less focused on those with a more serious criminal history. Immigrant groups in Denver suspect ICE targeted Jurado-Fernandez to punish Latorre, who has been an outspoken critic of ICE while in sanctuary.
"ICE chose to target him because of his connection to Ingrid, pulling his truck over on a public street and detaining him without a judicial warrant," Jennifer Piper, the Interfaith Organizer for the American Friends Service Committee in Colorado, said in a statement.
ICE pushed back on Piper's description of Jurado-Fernandez's detention.
"ICE targeted Eliseo Jurado-Fernandez for arrest after he came to ICE's attention during an investigation into his spouse, Ingrid Encalada Latorre, from Peru," a statement released to the public said. "Contrary to misguided speculation, ICE did not target Jurado-Fernandez in retaliation for Encalada Latorre taking sanctuary from deportation in a Colorado church."
When reached by A Plus, Carl Rusnock, director of communications for ICE's Central Region, clarified their statement and again denied that Jurado-Fernandez was targeted for anything other than his criminal record.
"Had he not had an extensive criminal conviction record, he likely would not have become a priority for ICE arrest," Rusnock said via email. "ICE does not consider DWAI to be 'only a misdemeanor.' Under this and the previous administrations, such convictions are considered to be priority offenses. Unfortunately, it's not hard to find news articles regarding the devastation caused by people who only have a DWAI/DWI/DUI."
But the White House's own public comments contradict Rusnock's claim. John Kelly, President Donald Trump's current chief of staff, said the opposite while serving as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary. In an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC in April, Kelly said, "the spectrum of criminality" where ICE operates has changed, and specifically cited a single DUI as a criminal offense this administration would begin deporting undocumented immigrants for. During the Obama administration, a 2014 memo classified offenses like DUIs as a civil immigration enforcement "priority level 2," out of three levels.
"This is a new era," Attorney General Jeff Sessions proclaimed shortly after Kelly's television appearance. "This is the Trump era."
Asked by A Plus if ICE planned to detain Latorre as well, Rusnock pointed to the ICE directive that instructs officers not to target places of worship and other sensitive areas without "prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances." Pressed on Jurado-Fernandez's family ties in the United States and his non-violent criminal record, Rusnock said that "ICE officers consider many aspects of an immigration case."
Latorre, speaking from sanctuary at a church in Colorado, said she feels that the system is broken.
"We all come for the American dream. It's not easy to come here illegally," Latorre said. "The current system is what has driven us to come in the ways in which we have come. Eliseo's father is a citizen and his mother is a legal permanent resident and even they have not been able to help him with his status. So that goes to show that the immigration system is broken and it doesn't make it easy for someone to come here."
Last Thursday, video surfaced of ICE agents boarding an Amtrak train in New York and asking passengers if they were American citizens. The footage prompted an outcry from immigrant rights activists across the country, who noted that undocumented immigrants in the United States are still granted fundamental civil rights. According to the ACLU, undocumented immigrants have the right to remain silent and do not have to discuss their immigrations status with police, ICE agents or any other officials. As long as an immigrant is not at an airport or checkpoint, they do not have to answer questions about whether they're a citizen, where they were born or how they entered the country. But if someone is not a citizen and does have their papers, they must show them if they are requested by an immigration agent.
Lopez said a student at her college actually went to a local police station and handed out "know your rights" flyers.
"It's frustrating and it's obviously a scary thought that it could potentially happen to me or someone close to me," Lopez said. "It just makes me more motivated to educate my community on their rights… It makes the situation more urgent that we do need to pass legislation for the immigrant youth that have DACA but also for TPS holders and the 11 million that don't have anything at this moment."
While immigration reform seems to be a top priority for Congress, Lopez, Latorre, Jurado-Fernandez and Kim all insisted that if people wanted to get involved they should find local organizations near them. Organizations like We Are Here To Stay are building local coalitions to protect undocumented immigrants who it believes should be protected from deportation.
In the meantime, Jurado-Fernandez and Latorre hope that their circumstances encourage law enforcement and Congress to treat them with some empathy.
"I understand that this country has the right to deport us," Jurado-Fernandez said. "And at the end of the day, it has the power to do that. But I pay my taxes, I'm raising my kids here, both my parents are here legally and my mistakes are in the past. I'm a different person now."