Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez appeared to have a promising future in the United States.
He is now one of the first “dreamers” to be deported by President Trump, immigration advocates and lawyers say, violating the protected status that undocumented people brought to the United States as children have been granted.
As recently as February, the 23-year-old — who was brought to the United States as a child — had a job picking fruits and vegetables in California fields while he pursued a degree in welding. Montes is a “dreamer”— a beneficiary of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
He is now living with relatives in Mexico, his lawyers said.
The Trump administration has ramped up deportations under sweeping new enforcement guidelines, but has not yet overturned the DACA program, which granted renewable, two-year work permits to more than 750,000 immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. On a number of occasions, Trump has expressed sympathy for DACA recipients.
In February, Trump said: “We’re going to show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids.”
During an appearance Wednesday on Fox News, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said DACA enrollees were not the government’s deportation priority, but he refused to say they would not be subject to deportation. “DACA enrollees are not being targeted,” Sessions told Fox News anchor Jenna Lee. “I don’t know why this individual was picked up.” But when pressed, Sessions said, “The policy is that if people are here unlawfully, they’re subject to being deported.”
“We can’t promise people who are here unlawfully that they’re not going to be deported,” Sessions added.
While Montes was walking to a taxi station in Calexico, Calif., a Border Patrol agent on a bicycle stopped him, asking him for identification. Having accidentally left his wallet in a friend’s car, Montes’s lawyers say, he had no identification on him, and no way of proving his status as a dreamer allowing him to live in the United States legally.
Another officer was called to the scene and took Montes into custody that night, Feb. 17, driving him to a station near the border, according to his lawyers. Hours later, at about 1 a.m., immigration officials walked Montes across the border, physically removing him from the United States and leaving him in Mexico, his lawyers say.
The Department of Homeland Security disputes these claims and says the government has no record of detaining Montes on Feb. 17 and then deporting him hours later. It didn’t happen, they say. Officials have confirmed that Montes was sent back when he tried to reenter the country on or about Feb. 19, an occurrence that Montes’s lawyers and the government agree on.
While DHS initially said Tuesday that it had a record of Montes’s DACA expiring in 2015, it released new information Wednesday confirming that Montes was approved for DACA status lasting until 2018.
But, DHS officials say, Montes lost that status by leaving the United States without permission “on an unknown date prior to his arrest by the U.S. Border Patrol on Feb. 19, 2017.”
“During Mr. MONTES-Bojorquez’s detention and arrest by the United States Border Patrol on February 19, he admitted to agents that he had illegally entered the United States and was arrested,” David Lapan, a DHS spokesman said in a statement to The Washington Post, noting that Montes made the same admission under oath. “All of the arrest documents from February 19, 2017, bear MONTES-Bojorquez’s signature. During his arrest interview, he never mentioned that he had received DACA status.”
“However,” Lapan added, “even if MONTES-Bojorquez had informed agents of his DACA status, he had violated the conditions of his status by breaking continuous residency in the United States by leaving and then reentering the U.S. illegally.”
Attorneys on behalf of Montes filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act on Tuesday demanding that the federal government turn over all information about his sudden removal. The lawsuit was filed, they say, because their FOIA requests were “ignored.”
The conflicting accounts surrounding the case leave many questions unanswered, but the allegations heightened existing concerns that DACA recipients are now being targeted for deportation, despite Trump’s pledges to “show great heart” toward them.
U.S. government response
Asked Wednesday about whether undocumented immigrants without a criminal record would face deportation, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration is focused on individuals who “are a threat to public safety,” according to CNN.
Spicer directed questions about the Montes case to DHS.
“That situation is evolving right now,” he added. “I would not rush to judgment.”
Nora Preciado, a Los Angeles attorney with the National Immigration Law Center and one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, said the lawyers on March 15 requested all records of Montes’s interactions with immigration authorities, but DHS has not yet provided them.
“Juan Manuel has been unequivocal in his assertion that he never voluntarily left the country while he had DACA,” Preciado said Wednesday. “We believe him. We filed a FOIA lawsuit to get answers. Rather than continue to provide half-truths and varying assertions, DHS should respond to our request for documentation.”
“We will see them in court,” she added.
Asked to respond to Preciado’s assertion that her client claims he never voluntarily left the United States, Lapan said DHS doesn’t comment on “pending litigation.”
“We stand by our statement of the facts in this case,” he said.
Lapan pointed out that Montes was convicted of shoplifting in 2016, but his lawyers maintain that conviction has no bearing on his DACA status, which is subject to a background check.
Montes’s lawyers say he had obtained an employment authorization document, a type only granted to DACA recipients. Lapan noted that Montes’s Employment Authorization Document is not valid for entry or admission into the United States, but Preciado said her client knew that although he had permission to work in the United States, he did not have permission to leave the country while he had DACA.
“Instead of providing his attorneys with information and documents, the government is providing varying stories to the media. He deserves to know why the federal government that promised he wouldn’t be deported for two years broke that promise to him without any explanation or documentation.”
Montes claims he was assaulted a few days after he was deported to Mexicali, Mexico. Shaken by the alleged assault and fearing for his safety, Montes then attempted to return to the United States. After hiding on the north side of the border for about a half-hour, he came across immigration officers and decided to turn himself in. Hours later he was once again removed to Mexico. Though Montes claims this was his second deportation, this is the only removal DHS has confirmed.
“The really important questions come up after the first time,” Preciado said. “The government doesn’t want to focus on that. It doesn’t want to answer those hard questions.”
Montes, who was brought to the United States when he was 9, suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child and has a cognitive disability, the lawsuit alleges. He was enrolled in special education classes through high school, and has been employed as a farm worker for about two years.
“I was forced out because I was nervous and didn’t know what to do or say,” Montes said in a statement. “I miss my job. I miss school. And I want to continue to work toward better opportunities. But most of all, I miss my family, and I have hope that I will be able to go back so I can be with them again.”
In March, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tweeted: “DACA is not a protected legal status, but active DACA recipients are typically a lower level of enforcement priority.”
Still, many DACA beneficiaries now feel they have reason to fear deportation. On Feb. 10, dreamer Daniel Ramirez Medina was detained in Seattle, drawing national attention. He was released more than a month later.
In late March, Daniela Vargas, 22, was detained after speaking at a news conference in Mississippi. She was also later released. At least 10 DACA recipients are currently in federal custody, United We Dream, an advocacy organization made up of DACA enrollees and other young immigrants, told USA Today.
“The federal government made a promise to Juan Manuel and all DACA recipients,” Preciado told The Post. “Unfortunately, Juan Manuel’s case proves that promise has been broken.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday that instead of honoring the protections of DACA, “President Trump has unleashed an indiscriminate deportation dragnet of appalling inhumanity.”
Greisa Martinez, advocacy director at United We Dream and a DACA beneficiary herself, said in a Facebook live video on Tuesday that “this is the moment of truth where we hold those people accountable.”
“In these moments of uncertainty,” she said, “there’s a lot of questions. What does this mean for us? Where do we go?”
This post has been updated.