Apolinar Sanchez Cornejo is a 67-year-old undocumented grandfather from Mexico who has lived in California since 1992 and works in an auto repair shop. Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents took him into custody in an early morning raid at his house. By noon, Sanchez Cornejo was put into deportation proceedings.
Outraged by his detention, his granddaughter Yadira Sanchez — an undocumented immigrant advocate — enlisted the help of advocacy groups to flood the phone lines and inboxes of the ICE Los Angeles field office. By night, Sanchez Cornejo was released.
Sanchez reportedly doesn’t have a criminal record, although he does has a two-decade old deportation order for removal he stated that he didn’t know about. “He doesn’t fall under the ICE priority list,” Yadira insisted in a phone interview with ThinkProgress.
Since 2011, the Obama administration has released a series of memos on prosecutorial discretion that direct federal immigration officials to avoid prosecuting certain undocumented immigrants who have committed non-serious offenses. But prosecutorial discretion is not a mandate — so some immigrants like Yadira’s grandfather, who would otherwise qualify for discretion, are still caught up in the deportation dragnet.
In November 2014, Obama administration stated that it would implement a new deportation program known as the Priority Enforcement Program, which focuses on criminal immigrants who could pose a threat to public safety. Since that announcement, and particularly since the recent murder of a U.S. citizen at the hands of a criminal undocumented immigrant in San Francisco, federal immigration officials have instigated a number of immigration raids to go after criminal immigrants. But the raids have also targeted immigrants who already served out old criminal sentences, and now have longstanding ties to the country.
Yadira said that her grandfather was a victim of a fraudulent lawyer who petitioned for his asylum case and left the case unresolved 20 years ago.
“Soon after, my grandfather got an order to come to a hearing, but he moved home addresses so he never saw this or heard about anything so he didn’t know,” Yadira explained. “Twenty years later, ICE comes to my grandfather’s home and terrorized my family. They really dehumanized my grandfather who was only going out to work… They scared my grandmother and my entire family and I don’t think that’s fair for anyone. It’s troubling and traumatic.”
Yadira has been actively petitioning for the release of other immigrants from ICE custody, but this one literally hit home. And when it did, she knew exactly what to do. She called up community members from local and national immigrant advocacy groups, including the Immigrant Youth Coalition and National Day Laborer Organizing Network. They helped her start a “Free Abuelito” campaign online.
They really dehumanized my grandfather who was only going out to work.
“It took a lot of work and community mobilization to flood their phone numbers, for us to demand for his release,” she said. “We had 1,000 signatures for his petition, 1,000 emails. And it was only through the pressure that my grandfather was released that day. Unfortunately we have a court hearing coming soon in a month where we’re going to hear what’s going to happen with his case.”
In the meantime, Sanchez Cornejo may have lucked out in having an immigrant advocate for a granddaughter. Not many other immigrants with old deportation orders are returned back to their families within the day.
At least half of the country’s 11.3 million undocumented population have lived in the country an average of 13 years, and like Sanchez Cornejo, many have already established roots. Those immigrants generally try and re-enter the country to be with their families. In fact, a Human Rights Watch report found that 85,000 immigrants were prosecuted for illegal entry or re-entry in 2013, with the top three reasons being that they were seeking work, reuniting with family, or fleeing violence or persecution.