His mother had brought him to the United States from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, when Berrones was 17 months old. He had grown up in Arizona, attended school in Phoenix from kindergarten through 12th grade and started a family.
He settled in Glendale, a west Phoenix suburb, and focused on raising his five children — most intensely, in recent months, on his 5-year-old son Jayden, who was given a diagnosis of leukemia in 2016.
For the past two years, Berrones, 30, also had been working with an immigration attorney, Garrett Wilkes, to try to resolve his legal status. Immigration officials had allowed Berrones to stay in the country and apply for work permits, provided that he check in with his local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office regularly, Wilkes said.
Berrones was among the many undocumented immigrants with little or no criminal records who, under the Obama administration, had been allowed to remain in the United States because they were not seen as a deportation priority. Under President Trump, however, that has changed, with a surge in the number of “noncriminal” arrests conducted by the agency last year.
On his last check-in in December, Berrones found himself caught up in that surge when he was told he would face deportation in 30 days. Though caught off guard, his attorney filed a petition for a stay of deportation, fairly confident it would be granted because a judge did so for Berrones in 2016.
Last Thursday, ICE rejected the request — and sent Berrones a surprise notice: He was to appear at the agency’s Phoenix office Monday, when he would immediately be removed from the country. Alarmed, Wilkes began making calls and evaluating Berrones’s options. The following day, they got into a car and drove Berrones to a church in north Phoenix, where he would seek sanctuary in a last-ditch effort to avoid deportation.
Berrones first appeared on ICE’s radar more than a decade ago: In 2006, when he was 18, Berrones was charged with a felony for driving with a fake driver’s license, Wilkes said. The charge resulted in an order for him to voluntarily return to Mexico — and a legal and moral quandary for Berrones that would leave him in limbo for more than a decade.
According to ICE, Berrones did voluntarily return to Mexico in 2006 but illegally reentered the United States shortly thereafter. In 2010, immigration officials once again granted Berrones a voluntary return to Mexico. He did yet again — and illegally crossed the border a second time, ICE said.
For Berrones, the decision to illegally reenter in 2010 was a no-brainer. He already had two children, now 10 and 9, with an ex-wife, and they were fully dependent on him, he said.
Berrones said he returned to the United States through a pedestrian checkpoint in Nogales, telling a Border Patrol agent he had gone to Mexico to visit some friends, and then took a shuttle to return to Phoenix.
“I just said, ‘I’m from Phoenix. I’m coming back home,’ ” Berrones told The Washington Post. “They said, ‘Do you have proof?’ I had an ID from high school. That’s the only thing I showed. Then he told me, ‘Okay then, you’re free to go.’ So I started walking.”
Immigration officials caught Berrones in the United States once again in February 2016, and they sentenced him to 90 days in federal prison on a criminal misdemeanor charge, the agency said.
“In June 2016, ICE granted him a one-year stay of removal, and he was released from ICE custody under an order of supervision,” ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts-O’Keefe said in an email. “Pursuing repeated stays is not a viable means for an alien to permanently postpone their required return to their country of origin.”
At that point, Berrones’s son’s leukemia had already been diagnosed, and ICE granted the stay of removal on humanitarian grounds, Wilkes said. In 2017, the attorney said he tried to renew the stay of removal but was told it was unnecessary.
Pitts-O’Keefe said Berrones was enrolled in ICE’s “Alternatives to Detention” program last December, which required continued regular check-ins at the Phoenix ICE office. It was during such a check-in that Berrones was told he would be deported.
In recent months, similar cases have unfolded around the country: In January, a Michigan father, too old to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, was deported to Mexico after three decades in the United States. That month, ICE also targeted 7-Eleven stores in a nationwide sweep for unauthorized workers and, later in January, detained a Polish doctor and green-card holder who had lived in the United States for nearly 40 years.
Wilkes said he had heard of Shadow Rock United Church of Christ acting as a sanctuary for other undocumented immigrants facing deportation and thought of it as a last-resort for Berrones, who said leaving his sick child was unfathomable.
Jayden goes to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for intensive chemotherapy once a month, Wilkes said. In addition, because Berrones’s wife is pregnant, Berrones is the only one who can administer chemotherapy pills at home for Jayden when he is not at the hospital.
Under ICE policy, immigration agents avoid conducting enforcement at “sensitive locations” — including schools, places of worship and hospitals — unless there are extraordinary circumstances. The Rev. Ken Heintzelman, the pastor at Shadow Rock, told the Arizona Republic that the congregation welcomed Berrones to live at the church.
“Our society really looks down on fathers who are neglectful,” Heintzelman told the newspaper. “This man crossed the desert, I think twice, put his life at risk in order to be a father and to take care of his family. He should really be praised and commended rather than judged, and punished and deported.”
The church set up a full-size mattress in a partitioned section of its recreation room for Berrones, with a spot for his belongings as well, he said. Over the weekend, Jayden refused to leave his father at the church — so he ended up staying there overnight Friday and Saturday nights, too.
Berrones said he grew increasingly nervous over the weekend as Monday approached.
“To be honest, when I was at the church, every day when I woke up, I just keep praying and praying for ICE to approve my stay,” Berrones said.
On Monday afternoon, ICE contacted Wilkes with an update: Berrones had in fact been granted a one-year stay of deportation, again. They were all in the church, sitting in the pews, when they received the news.
“My family … they started screaming,” Berrones said. “They were all so happy, and me too.”
Berrones went home that night. His next step, he said, is to renew his work permit — as he was scheduled to do — and continue pursuing legal residency, all while hoping his son responds to treatment. Jayden is expected to have two more years of leukemia treatments, he said.
Despite the stay, Wilkes said, his client is at the mercy of ICE officials.
“Technically immigration [officials] can do whatever they want, whenever they want to,” Wilkes said. “It’s a purely humanitarian application. ICE granted it just because they wanted to, and that’s it. Just as easy as they grant it, they can take it away.”