A Vermont father of six is facing deportation to Mexico in a case that highlights shifting federal immigration enforcement priorities.
Juan De La Cruz met his wife, Kirsten, more than 10 years ago. A few years later they were married, and had their first child together. The couple worked several jobs to save money to start a business together, and over the years built a farm with dozens of sheep, laying hens and pigs.
Juan is originally from Mexico, so the couple hired a lawyer in 2008 to start the green card process. About $20,000 later, they had no luck on the green card. They were eventually advised that Juan should simply continue to reside in the U.S. on the work authorization permit he'd obtained.
But earlier this month, the couple went in to the immigration office for their yearly check-in.
"Of course you're always nervous when go you have to go to immigration," says Kirsten, "but I hadn't seen any cases around here where people were have trouble being detained at check-ins, so we felt pretty confident that we're OK."
When they arrived, things took an unexpected turn.
"Then we're sitting there in the waiting room, and the officer came in and said, 'give your belongings to your wife, we have orders to detain you.' My heart and everything in my body just dropped."
Kirsten says the officer wanted to take Juan in that moment, but they begged for more time because they hadn't told the children that they were even going to an immigration meeting.
Policy changes could separate families
The couple says that U.S. Customs and Immigration officials gave Juan 30 days to go home and arrange his business affairs and say goodbye to his family. The couple has six children, four from Kirsten's previous marriage and two together. Juan says authorities were willing to release him back to his family before deportation because he doesn’t have a criminal record, but says ICE didn't give him any opportunities to argue against the decision.
"What I don't understand, is that they don't let me go in front of the judge and give me another chance," says Juan.
But Juan doesn't have a right to an immigration hearing in front of a judge.
"The ICE officer has the power within his sole discretion to decide whether or not an individual will be removed through a reinstated order," says Matthew Kolken, the attorney the couple hired in June.
That's because Juan has an earlier deportation on his record.
Back in 2005, Juan crossed into the U.S. illegally, making a week-long trek across the desert in search of a better life. After a brief stint working on an upstate New York farm, he was picked up by ICE in a farm raid and deported. He sneaked back to the U.S. a few months later, and has been living in Vermont ever since. Juan is married to an American citizen; he learned English, pays taxes and, in recent years, has been working in the U.S. with federal authorization.
But the fact that Juan came back to the U.S. illegally is the reason he's now being targeted for deportation. Juan's prior deportation order has been reinstated.
This process – of reinstating old deportation orders and tracking people down to deport them – is a legal procedure that was used heavily under the Obama administration to deport people. Then, in the last few years of Obama's tenure, the administration changed policies to prioritize deporting criminals, and not separating families.
But immigration lawyer Kolken says that the Trump administration has revived this policy.
Kolken requested that ICE rescind the removal order, making a case for the hardship Juan's family would endure without his presence and income, and demonstrating how connected Juan is to the Vermont community.
That request was denied on Thursday. However, Kolken says, "my client has expressed a reasonable fear of return to his native country."
Vermont 'is my home'
Juan says he fears that he could be kidnapped or harmed if he were to return to where his parents live in Tabasco, Mexico. The law requires that he have the opportunity to present his case to an asylum officer.
Kolken says that as of Friday, Juan is being scheduled for a what he called a "reasonable fear interview" with an asylum officer. The lawyer says he was told that Juan would not be deported on July 6.
"I feel like this is my home, and I can't imagine going back. I've been gone for so many years that half of my life in I've been living in Vermont," says Juan. He clears is throat, visibly distraught.
Juan and Kirsten haven't told the youngest children all the details, but they know their father may have to return to Mexico. Juan says sometimes when the youngest kids are playing they suddenly remember what's happening and burst into tears.
"Like our daughter, who is five, she doesn't understand, she thinks that he's being sent back to Mexico because he's Mexican. And she'll look at her skin and say, 'well I'm Mexican,'" says Kirsten.
"And the older kids are like, 'yeah but Isabella, you're American, Papa's not American.' She doesn't get it."
Kirsten says she doesn’t know how she can support her six children without her husband. He works a full-time job as a butcher at Green Pasture Meats, and also helps run their home farm. For her day job, Kirsten runs a day care. She rattles off all the financial worries that she's facing with the potential loss of her husband's income, but when it comes to the personal loss, she doesn't have words:
"To be honest with you, I haven't, I can't face it. I can't go there," Kirsten says. Her voice breaks, and she asks her daughter to leave the room, "Izzy, do you want to go play for a minute?"
"I'm trying so hard to hold it together for the kids, and I wasn't able to write the letter for the judge. You know everyone is writing these support letters, and I haven't been able to do it because I can't go there. I can't start to think about, every detail of our life in the past years, and I don't want to do it without him here."
A few hours after Juan and Kirsten learn that an ICE officer denied their request to have the deportation order rescinded, they are still reeling from the news.
Juan says they don't have a plan yet.
"We just working with the lawyer and hoping that he get something, so I can stay and fight for my case," says Juan.
"That's the only thing we're asking for: to have a second chance, so I can go to court and present my case."