Carlos knew it was dangerous for him to go to the courthouse on July 26.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have dramatically stepped up their hunt for undocumented people, friends from his church-based social justice group warned him, even those who’ve lived in the U.S. for decades like he has.
But it was important to him to do the right thing. His dedication to inpatient and outpatient rehab, and the ample evidence of his beloved status in his community, had helped his lawyer convince a Minnesota judge that Carlos should be given probation rather than a jail term. Besides, Carlos figured ICE knew he was scheduled for a check-in with immigration officials just a couple weeks later, and he’d shown up consistently to those meetings for years.
Yet the second Carlos arrived in court with family members and his long-time church friend Catalina – each of whom ThinkProgress is identifying only by first name because of the community’s fear of reprisals from ICE and local cops alike – they knew something was wrong. Two unfamiliar, burly white men — the spitting image of some of the Minnesotans who’ve gone out of their way to hurl verbal abuse at Catalina in the past two years, she said – were in the back of the courtroom, watching Carlos closely as he stood next to his lawyer to listen to the judge’s ruling.
Moments after the gavel banged that day, Catalina told ThinkProgress, the two unidentified men in jeans and shirtsleeves braced her friend. “He didn’t say anything else. Just ‘Let’s go, Carlos,’” she said. “Carlos looked at him like, what are you talking about, I don’t know who you are.”
Things escalated fast from there. A woman with the group told the men they were leaving. One of the men said Carlos was coming with them. The other shoved Carlos’ nephew into a doorframe, Catalina said, prompting her to whip out her phone and start filming.
“The way that I’d describe it is like a kidnapping. Because literally, if you look at it, two individuals took Carlos away from us aggressively and never identified themselves to us,” said Catalina. “And we were in a courthouse. Can you imagine what’s happening when they’re in someone’s home?”
Within a few seconds, Catalina’s video shows, everyone was shouting over each other. The two men, who still hadn’t explained themselves or shown any identification, began physically moving Carlos toward an elevator bay. One said he had an arrest warrant, but that he didn’t have to show it.
“OK. Next person that touches me is getting charged with assault on a federal officer,” one says.
“Who are you? We need identification,” says one of Carlos’ friends.
“No you don’t,” the man answers.
“You’re a complete stranger,” she says, as Carlos’ friends and lawyer crowd into the elevator with them.
Seconds later, the officer in a peach-colored button-down had grabbed Catalina by the elbow and wrist and shoved her out of the elevator.
“We were scared they would do more harm to us and to Carlos, and I didn’t want to leave him alone.”
“For me, as a woman of color, right now, for a white man to touch me so aggressively, and scream at me, I was completely shocked. And I kind of just went into the mode of just keep asking the same questions,” Catalina told ThinkProgress. “But we were scared, scared they would do more harm to us and to Carlos, and I didn’t want to leave him alone. When he started to grab and pull me, my wrist and my arm started hurting because of how much he was pulling me.” As the man shoved her, nearly knocking her to the floor, Catalina said she felt her body freeze and flash back to the numerous other times she’s been traumatized by police in her decades living in the midwestern United States.
No clean cases
Carlos’ story is not neat or simple. He was in court that day because he’d struck a pedestrian with his car in early 2017. His blood-alcohol level was under the legal limit, but because he’d had two beers and didn’t blow a perfect 0.0 he was charged with a felony. During his nearly six months in county lock-up following his arrest, he completed a rehab program. He enrolled in and completed another after his release.
“He has always admitted his fault in what he has done, and also has said to me various times, you know, I feel like I had to experience going to jail to understand what so many people are going through in our criminal justice system,” said Catalina, who’s sat alongside Carlos in church pews and marched with him at protests for eight years. “He always brings me back to understand that we are instruments of God’s work. He never hides. He was never shameful about his story. He would always acknowledge what happened, and say we go through these things for a purpose. He leads through that.”
Catalina described Carlos as a man of both unshakeable religious conviction and a deep capacity for growth, discovery, and change. One of the only people in his extended family to have a driver’s license, from earlier times when Minnesota granted them more loosely, he was constantly driving friends and family to appointments and jobs and school trips so they would not risk getting themselves on ICE’s radar by picking up a charge for driving without a license. All the while, he worked two jobs to try to keep a roof overhead and groceries in the cupboards.
“I think Carlos has shown that he is deserving, and deserves to stay with his family.”
“Even though he’s been going through all this and having difficulties economically, he has never stopped being such a great husband to his wife and father to his children,” Catalina said.
Drinking and driving and hurting someone is the kind of thing that’s fueled vilification of immigrants for decades, with right-wing media especially fond of pushing such stories going back to the inception of Fox News and before. Such stories can often tip the scales for more liberal-minded viewers, too.
But two judges – the criminal court judge he’d come to see that Thursday, and the immigration judge presiding over his case – had looked deeply at Carlos’ conduct and found him worthy of mercy and understanding. Two other DUI pops and a domestic assault charge that was dismissed, all from more than a decade ago, made it onto the immigration court’s radar too. Yet still, a judge cancelled his deportation, ruling in mid-2017 that he should continue to have a shot at a green card provided he kept his nose clean.
“It’s important to note that judge knew all of [Carlos’ history]. The immigration judge knew about the accident from early last year, knew about these other charges, and still granted him a cancellation of removal,” said Rich Morales of the national Faith In Action network, of which Carlos and Catalina are members. “I think Carlos has shown that he is deserving, and deserves to stay with his family.”
“It was an emotional hearing. I think the judge felt the weight of the community’s love for him, and his love for his family,” Carlos’ attorney said. The 25-year resident of the United States should get another chance after injuring the pedestrian in part because “the Court believes that he is committed to resolving his problems with alcohol, that he has expressed genuine remorse for his actions, and that he knows the gravity of what he has done,” the judge wrote. The criminal court in Minnesota had come to a similar decision, agreeing just moments before ICE snatched him up that Carlos’ dedication to rehab and strong community ties should mean he faced probation rather than prison time.
The judge who found Carlos deserving of a stay of deportation had a chance to meet him, speak with him, look over his record, and witness an outpouring of support from his community in Minnesota. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions – technically every immigration judge’s boss, since they are not an independent judiciary despite their titles – wasn’t having it. His staff appealed the ruling, and won.
Three faraway appeals judges from Sessions’ newly-expanded, ideologically-packed Board of Immigration Appeals saw fit to override their man in the field after looking at the case on paper. Sight unseen, with the kind of simplistic and inflexibly mathematical approach to justice that typified the tough-on-crime policies that fueled the mass incarceration crisis over the past four decades, they deemed Carlos unfit to remain in the only country his teenaged children have ever known.
Minnesota is home – but an increasingly hostile one
Carlos’ wife wasn’t with him that day in court. She’s gone into hiding, taking their three kids with her, for fear that they are next on ICE’s list.
“What we understand is he’s going to be removed as early as tomorrow,” Morales said on Tuesday. “They may move him to another facility. They may send him right to Mexico – where, we don’t know.”
Carlos followed his brother to the United States in the mid-1990s, his friends said, seeking a brighter future than the one facing them there. They settled in the Twin Cities area and put down roots, finding a church and, eventually, a prominent place in the organizing work that Faith In Action’s Minnesota partner group, ISAIAH.
“He’s part of the church counsel, prayer groups, ministry groups, he would go to people’s houses to pray for them when they were sick, or struggling in their marriage, or things with their children. He would pray the rosary at their homes,” Catalina said. The work seemed to unlock a bravery in him, she said, a desire to raise the voices of a community long accustomed to hiding. “He really believes that silence is part of what’s letting this immigration system rip our families apart.”
But the place Carlos and Catalina have each lived for years has begun to change in the past few years. The famed “Minnesota Nice” façade has cracked, at least as worn by some residents.
“After the election I did so many forums trying to explain to people that stuff like that video happens every day, and worse, [but] people don’t believe me. It’s very hard to know in Minnesota if the white person in front of you is a really racist person or they’re a liberal nice person, or a bit of both.” Catalina said. “The stories I hear, it’s people screaming at them in grocery stories, or while they’re driving. I drive through the rural parts of Minnesota a lot, and I experience a lot of white guys who look like these ICE agents looking at me a certain way. A couple months ago I had a white guy stop his car to come over and scream at me.”
Whatever new tears are popping open in the social niceties of the area lately, the structural repressions facing people who look like Catalina and Carlos – or Philando Castile, who was shot just a few minutes’ drive from Catalina’s old neighborhood – are older and blunter.
“I drive through the rural parts of Minnesota…and I experience a lot of white guys who look like these ICE agents looking at me a certain way.”
They, too, seem to be flexing new muscles in response to the ugliness and hate of the Trump era. Catalina remembered hearing Somali immigrants recount terrifying stories of being doubly profiled by local cops, first as people of color and then as Muslims. Another member of ISAIAH, the state faith-based justice group, pointed out that roughly half the people who turn to them for help are Liberian or Somali, not the Latinx families stereotypically associated with ICE round-ups.
The jail where Carlos has been held since the courthouse ambush is also a major money-maker for Sherburne County, Minnesota. Federal agencies pay the county 160 percent as much per prisoner per day as does the state Department of Corrections. Sherburne County is looking to expand its cash-in apace with the ramped-up detention and deportation campaign of the Trump administration, proposing to nearly double the capacity it can offer ICE at the facility where Carlos is detained pending deportation.
Soon, the bed where Carlos is generating revenue for the county will be occupied by some other unfortunate body. Friends familiar with his case said they expect him to be deported as soon as Wednesday, unless the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals acts quickly on an emergency request for a stay of deportation filed by Carlos’ immigration attorney.
However the resurgent racism of the times is manifesting in Minnesota, though, it’s still the only place Carlos and his family would really call home. If he is returned to Mexico after a quarter-century living in the United States, Carlos would arrive with no family to fall back on and no prospects for stability in his nation of birth.
“The family has nothing in Mexico. They don’t have anywhere to go,” Catalina said. Carlos’ three children, currently in hiding along with their mother, have been planning for futures here. “His oldest son is really trying to get into college. The future he’s been setting himself up for here would not be possible in Mexico,” she said.
“He doesn’t even speak Spanish well.”
UPDATE: Carlos’ emergency request for a temporary stay of deportation was granted late Tuesday, giving the 8th Circuit one additional week to decide whether or not to override ICE and DOJ in his case.