Workers detained by ICE while doing construction job at Travis Air Force Base
By TATIANA SANCHEZ AND CASEY TOLAN | The San Jose Mercury News (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 13, 2017
Hugo Mejia grabbed the lunch his wife made for him early in the morning May 3 and took off for his job at a new construction project on the Travis Air Force base in Fairfield. But the 37-year-old father of three from San Rafael didn’t return home.
Mejia and a coworker, Rodrigo Nuñez from Hayward — both undocumented immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico who have been in the United States for more than a decade — were detained on the base after a military official discovered they did not have valid social security numbers during a routine identification screening and reported them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE officials have placed both men in expedited deportation proceedings without a court hearing — known formally as “reinstatement” — because they each have old removal orders issued more than a decade ago after border agents caught them attempting to illegally cross the border. Neither of them has criminal records, according to their attorney.
Their plight has drawn sympathy and support from friends, neighbors and immigrant rights activists who say the men are being swept up in an illegal immigration crackdown that was supposed to focus on felons, not people whose only offense was entering the country illegally.
“The first thing that came to my mind was why me?” Mejia said in Spanish during a phone interview with this news organization from the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, where he is being held.
“I’ve been here for 17 years and my record is excellent. I’ve never done anything to anyone. My bills are paid on time, I have a clean record, we’ve never asked the government for help.”
A spokeswoman for the air force base confirmed the incident in a prepared statement, saying, “As part of normal protocol, Security Forces personnel entered the individuals’ information into the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, which identified them as undocumented immigrants. Security Forces then telephoned Immigration Customs Enforcement, who confirmed the status of the individuals and responded to take custody.”
Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests for comment.
President Donald Trump, who made enforcing immigration law a centerpiece of his campaign, has suggested the administration’s focus would be targeting illegal immigrants with criminal records. But critics say his executive order changing deportation priorities — which essentially made almost every undocumented immigrant a deportation priority — makes it easier to deport people with long ties to the U.S. like Mejia and Nunez.
“When the federal government indicates a desire to really go after people who are not citizens, then other parts of the government feel emboldened to target those groups,” said Jayashri Srikantiah, a Stanford law school professor and founder of the school’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. “There’s a ripple effect. The government sets a tone for what is acceptable and what is not.”
It’s unclear if employees or officials at military bases across the U.S. are required to report undocumented immigrants who visit the bases to ICE. A spokeswoman for Travis did not say if there are any such policies in place or if the individual who reported Mejia and Nuñez to ICE used his own discretion.
The men’s detainments have struck a chord in their communities — both are described as star employees at S&R Drywall, and are involved in their children’s school activities and at their local parishes.
Mejia said the individual who reported him and Nuñez initially told the pair they would likely only be questioned and then let go. They had clean records, he told them.
“But we knew that ICE never lets anyone go,” said Mejia. “It seemed as if he just decided to call ICE in that moment, on a whim. He didn’t know what to expect or how the process worked.”
Hours later Mejia’s wife, Yadira Munguia, got a call from her brother, who told her Mejia had been taken into custody by immigration officials.
“I didn’t understand what was going on,” Munguia said. “I asked god, ‘why is this happening, why did you deal us such a difficult test? “I felt everything come crashing down on me.”
Cristina Villanueva, the wife of Rodrigo Nuñez said, “I used to see news reports of so many cases, but you never think that it’s going to happen to you.” The couple has three U.S. born kids, ages 12, 10 and 6.
Alisa Whitfield, an immigration attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, a local nonprofit in Oakland, who is representing the men pro bono, has submitted a request for them to receive an interview with an asylum officer regarding their fear of returning to Mexico.
Because they are in reinstatement proceedings, they would have to prove that they would be extremely likely to be persecuted upon their return to Mexico in order to be granted protection from deportation.
If they were facing regular removal proceedings, they would be eligible to post a bond to leave the detention center, and fight their cases in immigration hearings, Whitfield said.
But there’s very little legal recourse for people in their situation, according to Srikantiah.
“The process usually ends very, very poorly for the person detained,” she said, adding that the president’s executive order will likely mean an increased use of non-judicial deportation processes like the ones Mejia and Nuñez are going through.
“We imagine that everyone sees a judge before they’re deported,” she said. “But the way the deportation system works is that more removal orders are issued through non-judicial processes than through judicial processes.”
Community members have submitted more than 100 letters of support for the men, according to Whitfield.
Steve Rossa, the men’s employer, declined to comment.
When Villanueva lost her parents in a car crash in Mexico two years ago, Nuñez gifted her five birds. During a recent phone conversation from the detention center, Villanueva said Nuñez asked her to set the birds free.
“He said, ‘An animal has the same right that a person does to be free,’” she said.
©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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