Saturday, April 23, 2011

No valid driver license offense getting immigrants deported in Collier (Naples Daily News)

No valid driver license offense getting immigrants deported in Collier

Naples Daily News
Posted April 23, 2011 at 5 p.m.

NAPLES — Achsah Ortiz said goodbye to her husband in a way she never imagined she’d have to — in a detention center days before he boarded a one-way flight to Mexico.

He had lived quietly under the radar in the United States for 10 years without immigration documentation. One day last fall, Guillermo Ortiz Juarez, then 30, made a costly mistake.

He got behind the wheel of his Ford Mustang after drinking. He swerved into a mailbox near his home in Naples Park and walked away from the car that was stuck in a swale. His charges, including a DUI, were misdemeanors, but his punishment was more than fines and driving restrictions.

He was separated from his wife and 7-year-old daughter and sent back to Mexico without knowing if the family would ever be reunited.

His departure left two American citizens heartbroken, facing hunger and financial insecurity.

“He’s our sole provider,” the 40-year-old Ortiz said, choking back tears.

She’d lost her job six months earlier. Her husband had been working two jobs to provide for the family.

“He’s not a bad person. Now you’re taking him away. Now America has to pay for me and my daughter,’’ she said. “I have to be totally destitute with my family.”

* * * * *

The deportation of Ortiz Juarez isn’t an uncommon story in Collier County for people who get arrested, even if they’re not charged with a felony offense.

A Daily News review of Collier arrest records for a several month period showed that one out of every five people turned over for deportation was charged with not having a valid driver license.

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office is one of four Florida law enforcement agencies, and about 70 across the country, that participate in a collaborative program with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The program, called 287(g), came out of a 1996 immigration law, which amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Section 287(g) extended powers to trained local law enforcement staff to aid in “the investigation, apprehension, or detention of aliens in the United States.”

In Collier, illegal aliens can be pursued in two ways — via corrections procedures at the jail or by special investigations.

Detectives investigate tips they’ve received indicating a person not in custody might be in this country illegally.

Or, when anyone is arrested and taken to jail, they’re questioned about their nationality. Those born outside of the U.S. are checked against a database for immigration status. Additionally, a program implemented in February 2009 called Secure Communities runs a fingerprint check on people in the jail.

The Daily News reviewed several months of jail records and charges, involving 121 men and women detained by the Sheriff’s Office for ICE prior to deportation proceedings.

By far, the most common among 43 types of charges was for not having a valid driver license. Twenty-six immigrants were charged with the offense. For 19 of those, that was their only charge.

About a third of all charges, 57 of 178, dealt with driver licenses — no valid license, driving with a suspended or expired license, or producing false identification or a license from out of state though the person lived in Florida.

* * * * *

Ortiz and Ortiz Juarez met in the restaurant business.

“I’ve never met anyone who is so honest, hard-working,” Ortiz said. “He puts family first. ... He’s always been there for me.”

They had little money or time for dates, but they cherished romantic backyard dinners. The relationship grew and the couple had a daughter, Angeline.

About a year later, Ortiz and Ortiz Juarez married.

In the beginning of their relationship, they met with Naples immigration attorney Casey Wolff, searching for a way to change his immigration status.

“We were trying to do the right thing but there are no laws in place,” Ortiz said. “That’s what I’m trying to wrap my head around.”

Marriage to an American and fathering an American child doesn’t give an undocumented immigrant rights to be in this country.

When immigrants try to make their stay legal, Wolff said, they are stymied by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

If an illegal alien was in the country for less than a year, he or she could leave for three years and then apply for re-entry. If they were in the United States for more than a year, immigrants must wait 10 years before trying to return.

The law was meant to scare illegal immigrants into going home, Wolff said, but it did the opposite.

“It trapped people here,” he said. “They decided to stay here and take their chances.”

* * * * *

Being in the country illegally isn’t a crime, Wolff said, defining it as an administrative offense, meaning a person cannot be jailed because they overstayed a legal visa or surreptitiously entered the country.

Even so, aliens have been targeted for removal.

However, those like Ortiz Juarez aren’t a top priority for deportation, according to federal standards.

A memo from ICE Director John Morton set priorities for catching, holding and removing foreign nationals.

“The removal of aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety shall be ICE’s highest immigration enforcement priority,” Morton wrote in the June 2010 memo.

Among ICE’s top priorities are those engaged in terrorism, convicted of violent crimes and teens in gangs. ICE next focuses on felons and those with three or more misdemeanor convictions. Finally, ICE said, it will turn its attention to aliens convicted of a misdemeanor, such as a DUI.

Ortiz Juarez appeared to fall into the lowest-priority category because there was no other offense on his record, said Nicole Navas, an ICE spokeswoman.

It’s these types of deportations that frustrate immigration attorney Wolff.

“The national government’s own policy, articulated by ICE, is (to round up) convicted felons or those with standing orders of deportation,” he said. “But that’s not what they’re doing at all.”

* * * * *

Wolff maintains government agencies, including those in Collier County, are “grabbing anybody that looks like a Hispanic in a pickup truck.”

That’s an allegation that deputies are familiar with, but say is untrue.

Collier sheriff’s Lt. Keith Harmon said deputies on the street can’t arrest people on the suspicion of being illegal.

Deputies also hear complaints that people they hand over to ICE were good people and never committed any crimes.

“We’re talking about people whose lives have been evolved in the United States,” Naples immigration attorney Casey Wolff said. “In Achsah’s case, do we really need to put (these) people on welfare? Does that spur economic growth? ... What is being served by destroying a family that is making its way in the world?”

“If you enter this country illegally, you have already committed a crime,” Collier sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Dasher said.

“If you enter this country illegally, you have already committed a crime,” Collier sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Dasher said.

In Collier County, between October 2006 and December 2010, about 3,100 people were identified as illegal aliens. So far, about 2,400 of those have left the country, according to data provided by ICE.

The Sheriff’s Office said those arrested had been charged with a total of some 2,000 felonies and 3,000 misdemeanors.

ICE provided figures from Collier County’s Secure Communities program and found that from February 2009 through November 2010, 94 of the 959 aliens handed over to ICE were among the lowest-priority immigrants.

They were people like Ortiz Juarez.

An immigration judge granted Ortiz Juarez a voluntary departure, meaning he could leave the country of his own accord instead of being deported and put on a plane by the federal government.

“It’s an immigration benefit that ... if he reapplies to enter the United States, he’s not barred from applying,” ICE spokeswoman Navas said.

Ortiz Juarez was forced to leave the country by mid-January. His wife scraped together money to buy his one-way ticket to Mexico City. It was a tricky task considering she’d already spent their savings as well as money she borrowed from family, and thousands of dollars given to her by Ortiz Juarez’s employer to stay afloat during Ortiz Juarez’s three months in custody.

The ordeal has worn on Ortiz Juarez, who said in a telephone interview that sometimes it feels like life is becoming too painful.

“It’s hard but I have to keep going,” he said by phone before he left the U.S.

Ortiz and Angeline saw Ortiz Juarez two times after his arrest – once at his visitation on Christmas. The next time the three were together was Jan. 9, two days before Ortiz Juarez’s flight to Mexico.

Ortiz Juarez is in Mexico now, his wife reported and ICE confirmed. He’s staying with family and trying to get used to life in a place he hadn’t seen since he was 20 years old.

Ortiz is missing her companion, her daughter’s father, and the security of the life they built together.

Angeline is happy that her father is “free” and not “locked up” anymore, but she misses him and wrote on a drawing: “I just need my papa back.”

The mother and daughter took a two-week trip to Mexico and plan to go there again when Angeline is on summer break.

Their attorney is hopeful Ortiz Juarez can file an application for a hardship waiver that could allow him to return to the United States.

Though all involved acknowledge Ortiz Juarez’s mistakes, they question the law involving a person without a felony background, who has worked hard and raised a family.

Removing felons from the country is a valid endeavor, Wolff said, but a law that keeps good people apart isn’t accomplishing goals America stands for.

“We’re talking about people whose lives have been evolved in the United States,” Wolff said. “In Achsah’s case, do we really need to put (these) people on welfare? Does that spur economic growth? ... What is being served by destroying a family that is making its way in the world?”

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