While Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez, 23, 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 says, 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. Hours later, at about 1 a.m., immigration officials walked Montes across the border, physically removing him from the U.S. and leaving him in Mexico near Mexicali, Baja California.
Montes, immigration advocates and lawyers say, is believed to be the first “dreamer”— a beneficiary of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — to be deported. They say he has an active work permit.
The Department of Homeland Security disputes these claims and has provided no record of the incident. Officials only confirmed that Montes was deported when he tried to re-enter the country on or about Feb. 19, which he admits.
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 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 President Trump’s pledges to “show great heart” toward them.
“We have through the last few weeks attempted to get the records or any explanation about what happened to Juan Manuel,” said Nora Preciado, a Los Angeles attorney with the National Immigration Law Center and one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit. The lawyers on March 15 requested all records of Montes’ interactions with immigration authorities, but DHS has not yet provided them. “We’re trying to get answers,” Preciado told The Washington Post.
A DHS spokeswoman said Montes was apprehended by Border Patrol officers after he illegally entered the country by climbing over the border fence in downtown Calexico, according to a statement provided to reporters. He was arrested minutes later for illegal entry, the spokeswoman said, adding that Montes’s DACA status expired in August 2015.
The DHS spokeswoman also noted that Montes had a previous conviction for theft that resulted in probation. The lawsuit admits this fact, but argued that the conviction would not disqualify him from DACA, which requires a background check.
Montes’s lawyers claim he was granted DACA protection in 2014 and successfully renewed his status in 2016 for another two years, expiring in 2018. They say he also obtained an employment authorization document, a type only granted to DACA recipients.
Montes, who worked picking fruits and vegetables in California fields and was pursuing a degree in welding, claims he was assaulted a few days after he was deported to Mexicali in February. One man wrapped his arm around Montes’s neck and held a blade to his back while another grabbed a suitcase Montes was carrying. Montes tried to run away, but he fell, and the two men began kicking his back and legs while he was on the ground, he claims in the lawsuit.
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 farmworker for about two years.
He was attending a local community college and hoped to finish his degree to become a welder. He is now living with relatives in Mexico, his lawyers said.
“I was forced out because I was nervous and didn’t know what to do or say, but my home is there,” 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.”
The first time he was deported, Montes alleges, he was not provided the opportunity to see an immigration judge, seek the assistance of counsel, or otherwise present his DACA paperwork or work authorization before he was removed.
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 his interest in showing sympathy to 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.”
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?”