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Hours before Miguel Perez-Montes, an Army combat veteran, was deported to Mexico last Friday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D.-Ill., issued an unusually personal and impassioned appeal to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to delay his return to the country he left at the age of 8.
She never got an answer, and that same day, according to a statement from ICE spokeswoman Nicole Alberico, Perez-Montes was flown from Gary, Ind., to Brownsville, Texas, where he was escorted over the border and turned over to Mexican authorities. It was the latest in a series of ICE actions against immigrants who have attracted the attention of the media, activists or elected officials, actions that have led immigration-rights advocates to suspect that ICE is trying to make an example of them. At one time, the intervention of a U.S. senator would likely have at least postponed a deportation. In Perez-Montes’s case, it either didn’t help — or, some suspect, had the opposite effect.
Perez-Montes, who was in the country legally and served two tours in Afghanistan, was deported as a result of a 2010 felony drug conviction for selling cocaine, for which he had served half of a 15-year prison sentence before being transferred into ICE custody in September 2016. Duckworth, a disabled combat veteran herself, said in her letter that a severe, undiagnosed case of PTSD caused his drug problem and led to his arrest.
“As ICE continues to hastily and aggressively pursue the deportation of this Veteran who served our nation in uniform, I am urgently appealing you to stay his deportation and personally review his case,” Duckworth wrote after learning that, amid Perez-Montes’s lengthy and public fight for citizenship, immigration officials had transferred him from the Illinois detention center where he’d been held to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for imminent removal without notifying his family or allowing him to pack his belongings.
“This is a very deplorable way to treat a Veteran who risked his life in combat for our nation,” Duckworth wrote, and beneath her signature she scrawled a handwritten note in blue ink: “This is a matter of great personal importance to me and many other veterans. Please personally review this case and provide my office with information.”
Though it was Perez-Montes’s military service that led to Duckworth’s interest in his case, he is one of a growing list of immigrants who’ve lost public fights against detention or deportation after they or others spoke out about their cases, a trend that has immigration lawyers and advocates questioning ICE’s priorities.
Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a nonpartisan voluntary bar association comprising more than 15,000 immigration attorneys and professors, said he and his colleagues have “definitely gotten the impression that elevating a case in a way that draws more attention to it,” whether from the media or a member of Congress, is far less likely to elicit a positive response from the Trump administration than it might have in the past.
Individual tales of long-term residents facing deportation after decades in the U.S. have captured local and national headlines since the first weeks of the Trump administration, when Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, armed with a mandate to crack down on illegal immigration, did away with the Obama-era enforcement categories that prioritized deportations of recent border arrivals, convicted violent criminals, known gang members, suspected terrorists and others considered threats to public safety.
Suddenly, ICE was deporting people like Guadalupe García de Rayos, a 21-year Arizona resident and mother of two U.S. citizens, who’d been allowed to stay in the country, despite a previous order for removal, as long as she checked in regularly with immigration officials. Several sympathetic stories of fathers facing deportation, like Amer Othman Adi, a Jordanian-born entrepreneur in Ohio who’d lived in the U.S. for 38 years, and Jorge Garcia, who’d been brought to the U.S. from Mexico at age 10 but was too old to qualify for DACA, have attracted media attention and public support. But their cases ended with them being put on airplanes and sent out of the country.
“I absolutely believe the way Amer’s case was handled by the Trump administration was intended to publicly humiliate [him] and his family for exercising their right to free speech. It is despicable,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who advocated against Adi’s deportation.
“Everybody is subject to enforcement at the same level, even if they’ve lived here for years and pose no threat to communities, even if they have families and compelling equities,” Chen said of the current administration’s approach to immigration enforcement. “This administration may even retaliate if there is attention drawn to a case and be more adversarial than look for a way to resolve it positively.”
While Perez-Montes and others like him weren’t in the public eye until they actually faced deportation, several prominent immigration activists have also been arrested and subjected to removal orders in what they claim is an attempt to silence dissent.
Last March, 22-year-old Daniela Vargas was pulled over and arrested by ICE agents after speaking about her immigration status, and calling for President Trump to protect her, at a press conference in Jackson, Miss. Vargas, who was brought to the U.S. from her native Argentina at age 7, was in the process of trying to reapply for protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which had expired several months earlier.
In December, Mexican-born Baltazar Aburto Gutierrez was reportedly arrested and detained after he spoke to the Seattle Times about his girlfriend’s arrest for an article about ICE cracking down in Washington’s Pacific County. The following month, ICE agents detained Eliseo Jurado Fernandez, an undocumented Mexican national and the partner of Peruvian immigrant rights activist Ingrid Encalada Latorre, who has taken sanctuary in three different Colorado churches in an effort to avoid deportation. In a statement to the Denver Post at the time, ICE field office director Jeffrey Lynch confirmed that “ICE targeted Eliseo Jurado Fernandez for arrest after he came to ICE’s attention during an investigation into his spouse, Ingrid Encalada Latorre.”
On the East Coast, immigration agents arrested two prominent activists and leaders of New York’s New Sanctuary Coalition just days apart in January. Jean Montrevil, who previously served time in prison for felony convictions of cocaine possession and had been checking in with ICE regularly for the past 15 years, was deported to Haiti 13 days after his arrest on Jan. 3. Montrevil’s colleague Ravi Ragbir, a well-known activist from Trinidad, was arrested during his ICE check-in on Jan. 11 and detained. Ragbir, who obtained lawful permanent residency in 1994, was ordered deported after serving a prison sentence for a 2000 conviction on charges related to a lending-fraud scheme. Since 2008, Ragbir had received four stays of deportation, requiring that he check in regularly with ICE, but eventually his appeals expired and Ragbir received a final order of removal.
On Jan. 30, a federal judge in Manhattan ordered his immediate release and condemned Ragbir’s arrest without notice as “treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust.”
Ragbir is currently pursuing a First Amendment lawsuit alleging that he and other activists have been unfairly targeted by immigration officials in an effort to censor them.
An ICE source, speaking on background, said that by dispensing with the former administration’s list of enforcement priorities, the Trump administration has opened the door to deporting immigrants with nonviolent criminal records who might have been allowed to stay under the old rules. The source said this might be fueling the perception that ICE is targeting high-profile individuals but denied knowledge of any directions from the agency to do so.
Not all the activists who’ve been caught in ICE’s dragnet had criminal records, however.
Maru Mora-Villalpando, a prominent Washington state-based immigration activist who was born in Mexico City and came to the U.S. on a tourist visa more than 25 years ago, for example, had no prior run-ins with either the criminal justice or immigration enforcement systems when she received a notice to appear in immigration court back in December.
In fact, on the form that was submitted to recommend Mora-Villalpando for removal from the U.S. — a copy of which was made public — a Seattle-based field officer not only confirmed that Mora-Villalpando had no criminal record but wrote that he had become aware of her after an interview with a local publication in which she identified herself as “undocumented.”
“It should also be noted,” the officer wrote, “that she has extensive involvement in anti-ICE protests and Latino advocacy programs” and “has become a public figure” in her local community.
“It doesn’t get any more clear than that,” Mora-Villalpando told Yahoo News. “This is completely political retaliation. It’s also against my own freedom of speech, my constitutional right.”
Such actions by ICE, she argues, are “a way for them to create more fear in our communities so we don’t continue speaking up and fighting back.”
“[That’s] not supposed to happen in a democracy, not supposed to happen in a First World country,” she said.
The ACLU, along with several other immigrant rights groups from around the country, claims that more than 20 activists have been targeted by ICE for speaking out against the administration’s enforcement tactics. ICE has repeatedly denied those assertions.
Though she noted that the U.S. deported more immigrants during Obama’s tenure than under any other president, Mora-Villalpando said that, as an activist, “at least during the Obama administration we were able to speak up and even engage with authorities. Now it’s just impossible.
“Now it doesn’t matter if you get media attention or if you get some political support or even the community support. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be able to stay,” she added. “And that’s because ICE has way too much power.”
Not only did Duckworth call directly on Nielsen to review the Perez-Montes case, but for the first and only time in her career on Capitol Hill, the senator made a longshot attempt to protect Perez-Montes through a private bill, a relatively uncommon type of special legislation that applies only to a specific individual or small group of people.
Since 1983, members of Congress have introduced a total of 4,200 private bills, half of which sought to grant legal status to a particular immigrant at risk of deportation. Of those private immigration bills that have been submitted over the past 35 years, about 6 percent have become law.
In a statement explaining her decision to submit the private bill, Duckworth wrote, “This should never have happened in the first place, but I’m going to try everything in my power to prevent this disgraceful treatment of a Veteran who served honorably.”
In the past, when a private immigration bill was submitted on behalf of a specific individual, ICE would automatically postpone that person’s deportation, allowing them to remain in the country while the bill awaited consideration in Congress. Though few of these bills are ever actually enacted into law, this policy enabled members of Congress to postpone deportations for several years by repeatedly reintroducing the same private bills during each congressional session.
Last May, however, ICE director Thomas Homan sent a letter to a handful of senators informing them that, effective immediately, the agency would no longer be delaying deportations for people with private bills pending.
Madhuri Grewal, a federal immigration policy counsel at the ACLU, pointed to ICE’s new policy on private bills — which, she noted, are “usually a last resort for individuals” and when introduced in the past “were taken very seriously”— as an example of “little administrative changes that make it easier for the agency to be subject to less oversight by members of Congress.”
The fact that Perez-Montes was deported hours after Sen. Duckworth reached out directly to Secretary Nielsen has left Grewal with some troubling questions.
“Does ICE make things worse for someone for whom a high-profile person is trying to intervene in their case?” she asked. “Not only are we concerned that there’s retaliation, [but] is this an agency that’s subject to oversight?
“I can’t give you answer to that, but what we saw in this particular case doesn’t leave me with a lot of hope,” she said.
A spokesperson for ICE provided Yahoo News with a public statement confirming the details of Miguel Perez-Montes’s deportation and his past criminal conviction, but did not respond to a request for comment on the concerns expressed by Grewal and others.
Following the news of Perez-Montes’s deportation, Duckworth said she was “appalled” by Nielsen’s failure to respond to her personal appeal for a review. A DHS spokesperson declined to comment on the record when asked why Nielsen did not respond to Duckworth’s request.
“This case is a tragic example of what can happen when national immigration policies are based more in hate than on logic and ICE doesn’t feel accountable to anyone,” Duckworth said, vowing to explore additional oversight options to prevent combat veterans from encountering the same treatment in the future. “At the very least, Miguel should have been able to exhaust all of his legal options before being rushed out of the country under a shroud of secrecy,” she said.
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