Mexico was an unfamiliar place for 19-year-old Manuel Antonio Cano-Pacheco. He was only 3 years old when his parents brought him to the United States — without a visa.
In 2015, as a teenager in Des Moines, he qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the initiative spearheaded by President Barack Obama to give temporary protection to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Cano-Pacheco gained DACA status and with it, a work permit, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But then he was arrested and convicted on two misdemeanor drug charges. The convictions voided his DACA status and, in 2017, he was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Two months ago, facing a high likelihood of being deported, Cano-Pacheco chose to return to Mexico and was soon escorted across the border by ICE deportation officers.
Instead of graduating from high school in Iowa, he returned to an increasingly violent country where he hardly knew anyone, even his relatives, Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, a pastor in Des Moines who knows the family, told The Washington Post. The relatives he left behind in Iowa worried for his safety, knowing how deportees are often targeted by gangs in Mexico, as news reports have confirmed.
In May, three weeks after arriving in Mexico, Cano-Pacheco was killed in the north-central state of Zacatecas. His throat was slit while getting food with an acquaintance of his cousin’s, his family and friends told the Des Moines Register.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” his high school friend, Juan Verduzco, 20, told the Des Moines Register. His family does not believe it was a targeted attack but believe it was tied to a gang, Alfaro-Santiz said.
Cano-Pacheco lost his DACA protections under policy instituted by the Obama administration, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
According to the Obama-era policy, “anyone convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more nonsignificant misdemeanors would generally no longer warrant a grant of deferred action,” Michael J. Bars, senior adviser for public affairs at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a statement to The Post.
“As such, USCIS has consistently made it clear to individuals receiving DACA that it may be terminated at any time at DHS’ discretion if they engage in subsequent criminal activity,” Bars said in the statement.
Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE, reiterated that Cano-Pacheco was not deported. He requested and was granted voluntary departure after he was convicted in Iowa of two additional misdemeanors, including for driving under the influence.
Voluntary departure does not include the penalties of a formal deportation. For example, people with voluntary departure are not banned from returning to the United States. Cano-Pacheco was given an escort to return him safely to the border in Laredo, Tex. Once he crossed the border, he was turned over to Mexican officials.
Regardless of the circumstances that landed him in Mexico, Cano-Pacheco’s death underscored the dangers many immigrants face when returning to parts of Mexico and Central America.
Zacatecas, the Mexican state where Cano-Pacheco died, has seen a sharp increase in homicides; three different cartels are currently operating across the state. Last year, a mass grave of 14 bodies was found there, believed to be linked to a gang.
Politicians and immigrant rights activists frequently invoke this fear of death when they seek support for causes like DACA, or child refugees from Central America seeking refuge. But the fates of those who return to their native countries often go untold, as the New Yorker pointed out in a report titled, “When deportation is a death sentence.”
The government does not monitor what happens to deportees, and families of deceased deportees often refrain from speaking publicly.
Cano-Pacheco’s death has stunned friends and community members in Des Moines. Alfaro-Santiz helped organize a small memorial service earlier this week for him in his church, Trinity Las Americas United Methodist Church.
“It was very somber,” Alfaro-Santiz said. “People just couldn’t talk.”
Many in this community are still shaken by the death of another former Des Moines resident, Constantino Morales, an immigrant rights activist who was killed in 2015 in his native Mexico after his request for U.S. asylum was denied. He told officials he feared he would be killed by the drug cartels if forced to return to Mexico. Morales’s case gained national attention and drew support from legislators and even a county sheriff.
He was deported in 2014 and killed a year later in a gunfight with cartel members who had threatened him when he served there as a police officer.
Deaths like these are “nothing new” to the community, Alfaro-Santiz said. “They’re very aware of the risks. That’s why they’re fearful of being deported.”
But the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration enforcement has heightened these fears. Earlier this month, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, 32 undocumented immigrants were arrested in an ICE raid at a concrete facility. On July 1, a new law will take effect pushing back on “sanctuary” policies by requiring city and county officials to work with federal officials to enforce immigration law.
“People are very afraid,” Alfaro-Santiz said. “We have people not coming to church now. They don’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Cano-Pacheco’s death “makes it more real for many people.”
Verduzco mourned the loss of his friend at the memorial service Sunday. Speaking to the Register, he recalled him as an upbeat, friendly young man with a passion for car mechanics. He had received a scholarship to study the trade at a college in Chicago, Verduzco told the Register.
But he had also been struggling emotionally in recent years, particularly after his father went to prison for drug offenses. He was forced to help support his family. He found work installing floors. “Things were going downhill. I didn’t know what to do about it,” Verduzco told the Register.
During this time, he also had a baby with his girlfriend, a boy who is now 1 year old.
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