One family’s ordeal under Trump’s zero tolerance immigration tactics.
*Note: Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
By Sarah Tory High Country News
One afternoon last April (2019), a group of agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) drove the four hours from the ICE field office in Phoenix, Arizona, north to Flagstaff, a city nestled beneath the 12,000-foot San Francisco Peaks. They were looking for 28-year-old Jose Montelongo, an undocumented immigrant who grew up in Flagstaff and is the father of three young children, all U.S. citizens. Over the next two days, the agents would arrest and threaten multiple members of Montelongo’s family in Flagstaff and in Sedona in their attempt to find him.
For many people who witnessed the arrests or heard about them, the violent tactics and collateral arrests that took place last April raised questions about the power extended to ICE under the Trump administration. For the local immigrant and Latino communities in particular, the arrests felt like a confirmation of their worst fears: that even a minor encounter with the criminal justice system can mean deportation, by any means necessary.
A few months earlier, Montelongo had been pulled over for driving 2 miles over the speed limit. Police officers discovered that there was a warrant for his arrest over an unpaid fine related to a 2016 DUI charge. They brought Montelongo to the Coconino County Jail, where, under a special agreement with ICE, the sheriff’s office honored a “detainer” — a request by ICE to hold someone for an additional 48 hours after his or her release date, in order to allow agents to take them into immigration custody. Detainers raise serious constitutional issues because they often hold people even when there are no charges pending or a probable cause of any violation.
While he was still in jail last January, Montelongo and his lawyer filed a lawsuit against Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll and Matthew Figueroa, the jail commander, arguing that detainer requests don’t give Arizona sheriffs the authority to prolong detention for civil immigration violations. In response, the sheriff’s office offered Montelongo a deal: If he dropped the lawsuit, ICE would drop the detainer. ICE lifted his detainer, and he was released from jail on Feb. 14.
But it wasn’t over yet; Montelongo had no idea just how far ICE was willing to go to get him. ICE refused to answer my questions on its investigative techniques, but in interviews, Montelongo’s family recounted similar stories of how the agency secretly monitored them as part of its efforts to find Montelongo. One teenaged niece described how she received Facebook friend requests from strange men who turned out to be ICE agents. Then came the arrests.
Under President Donald Trump, aggressive tactics have become more common as ICE looks to fulfill the goal of “zero tolerance.” One of Trump’s first acts as president was to undo his predecessor’s priorities: Now, every undocumented immigrant is a possible target. As a result, the number of ICE arrests has soared: Between September 2016 and December 2018, the number of people in ICE custody around the country increased by over 8,600 to nearly 47,500. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people arrested by ICE as of June 2018 — four out of five — had no criminal record or had only committed a minor offense, such as a traffic violation.
Many of ICE’s new tactics are unprecedented, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration lawyer and migration scholar, told me. “They’re using the existence of children and family members, for example, to capture someone they’re interested in detaining,” he said. Montelongo’s arrest was also part of a new pattern of targeting immigration activists or anyone who has spoken out against the agency. (ICE denies that it has targeted anyone for retaliation.)
In May, I traveled to Flagstaff to interview Montelongo, his family and others connected to the April 18-19 arrests. I wanted to understand the power and reach of modern-day immigration enforcement in America and how it affects the lives of those involved. Every year, thousands of individuals are arrested by ICE and taken to remote detention centers, with life-altering consequences for their families and often entire communities. I turned to oral history in an effort to capture the emotional reality of those arrests. What follows is a first-person record of those two days.
“Everything will be OK.”
Jose Montelongo, 28:
I got my first DUI in 2013 and went to Eloy (an immigrant detention center in southern Arizona). At the time, I qualified for a cancellation of removal because of my kids. I got a work permit, and things got a little better.
In 2016, I got another DUI. I got sent to Eloy again. Arizona is really strict about DUIs, so my lawyer recommended I take the voluntary departure option (commonly known as “self-deportation”).
I went to Zacatecas, but I missed my kids. I would talk to them and they’d ask me where I was, but I couldn’t really tell them because they didn’t know what’s going on, so I’d just have to be like, “Oh, I’m working, but I’ll be home soon.”
There’s a lot of cartels there (in Zacatecas). One time some guys came up to me and told me to get in the truck. They showed me their guns, and that’s when I decided to come back.
I went to (Ciudad) Juárez and basically just crossed illegally. It is really scary because there are cartels on the border that try to control territory, but I was more scared to get picked up by immigration and go through that process again.
That’s when I started driving a little more, because I’d get jobs and, well, I needed to work.
I got back to Flagstaff in 2017. That’s when I started driving a little more, because I’d get jobs and, well, I needed to work.
The day I got pulled over, I had gone to pick up my youngest daughter. She’s 4 years old. I took her out for breakfast and as soon as we got back home, they (the police) pulled up right behind me. He told me I was going 32 (miles per hour) in a 30 mph zone. I gave him my registration and insurance and he ran my ID. There was a warrant on me for the 2016 DUI. I was making payments towards the fine, but when I went back to Mexico, I couldn’t pay anymore so they put out a warrant for my arrest.
I tried to ask the police officer to arrest me behind the truck so my daughter wouldn’t see. He said, “No, put your hands behind your back.”
She was in there looking at me, and I kept telling her that everything will be OK.
“Don’t engage in criminal activity and
you don’t have to worry about anything.”
After the police took Montelongo to the Coconino County Jail, Sheriff Jim Driscoll notified ICE about his arrest, which put a detainer on him. On Jan. 9, 2019, Montelongo and his attorneys filed a lawsuit against Driscoll and Matthew Figueroa, his jail commander, challenging the constitutionality of the detainer policy.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in courts across the country over concerns that they lack the legal authority to do so. In Arizona, many sheriffs continue to honor detainers under SB 1070, the state’s draconian “show me your papers law.” Even though it was mostly struck down in 2016, a number of the law’s provisions remain in place, including one that gives sheriffs the option of upholding detainers.
Jim Driscoll, 67, Coconino County sheriff:
The state of Arizona has a specific law; it says no official or agency of this state may limit or restrict the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the fullest extent permitted by law. If they change the law, I’ll gladly comply. I don’t have a personal interest in this.
When a person is brought in, they’ve been arrested on local charges — what we call “state of Arizona charges.” They’re brought in, and at that point if there are suspicions that they could be in the country illegally, we contact ICE.
If they’re not involved in major issues, ICE generally doesn’t want them. If they had a minor warrant for a traffic violation, ICE probably doesn’t want to pick them up, but if they’ve been deported four times or 12 times, ICE wants ’em, or if they’ve been involved in other criminal activities, ICE will just about always put a detainer on them.
There are some groups out there that I think create the fear in the community. As we tell people: If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have to worry. If you are undocumented, don’t engage in criminal activity and you don’t have to worry about anything. Don’t get drunk and drive. Don’t get arrested.
“Why are you doing this?”
Montelongo had been in jail for more than a month when the sheriff’s office made a deal with ICE to get Montelongo’s lawsuit dismissed: ICE lifted its detainer, and on Feb. 14, his family paid his bond and he was released. Two months later, they came back for him.
Alejandra Becerra, 26, Flagstaff immigrant rights organizer:
It was a Thursday — April 18 — when I got a call from Marisela (Montelongo’s sister). She was crying and saying that ICE was at her house and to please come. I drove there quickly, using a back way because ICE had blocked off the majority of their street. I got out of my car and saw eight to 10 officers standing outside the house. They were talking to another one of Jose’s sisters, and then I saw her being put in handcuffs. I saw her kids crying. Jose’s two older nieces were asking the officers, “Why are you doing this?”
I remember coming inside, and Jose’s niece was asking me, “They took my mom? Did they take my mom?” They didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen to them.
Marisela, 35, Montelongo’s sister:
About two hours after they took my sister and her husband, they (ICE) told me over the phone that they were bringing them home.
My sister told me that they (the ICE agents) had told her that if she revealed where Jose was, nothing bad would happen, but if she did not tell them, they would arrest us all and give the children to the government.
Then my sister started telling me that they have information on all of us — on all of Jose’s siblings and on my dad and my mom. She said they have a folder for each of us, with pictures. The know everything. They told my sister that two Sundays ago, the family had gone to eat at Taco Bell. They knew what time my mother dropped off my nephew at school, what time she got on the bus and when she went to work.
We started thinking about how … how they might have followed us. We don’t know how they have so much information.
I’ve just been afraid. Like one day, if I go home, and my mom’s not there, what would I do?
Rosa, 15, Montelongo’s niece:
When all the trucks started to come around us, that’s when I got scared. They told my auntie, “You’re arrested.” They didn’t tell her for what or anything. She was carrying her little baby, so she gave me her son, and my sister was holding her baby, but she couldn’t breathe and that’s why I took the baby from her because I thought she was going to faint.
What’s been affecting me the most is that I’ve just been afraid. Like one day, if I go home, and my mom’s not there, what would I do?
“They didn’t tell me who they were looking for.”
The day after the arrests, on April 19, ICE agents arrived in Sedona, 30 miles south of Flagstaff, to continue their hunt for Montelongo, who had been living there with his sister, Karen. They arrested Karen at a gas station on her way to work. After putting her into their truck, agents asked her about her brother’s whereabouts, threatening to take her children away if she did not tell them. After she told them, they drove to her home to find Montelongo.
Mik Jordahl, 61, lawyer, witness to the Sedona arrests:
I was given a street address, and I went by. It was 10 a.m. I saw nothing. It looked like the home was completely vacant. It was a double-wide mobile home in a nice area with trees lining the street. I went around the block and did another circle, and all of a sudden I saw several SUVs showing up and there was a bunch of men getting out — some with bullet proof vests on and some carrying rifles.
There were probably 11 of them (ICE agents) that I counted, in four to five different vehicles. It looked like a SWAT team. They surrounded the house, and I asked if they had a warrant, and they said no. They didn’t tell me who they were looking for or what was going on at all, so I just stayed there.
They spoke to the owner of the home to see if he would give consent for them to enter. They said they’d break in if they had to wait for a warrant.
While they were negotiating with the homeowner (Montelongo’s brother-in-law), they said that they had arrested his wife (Jose’s sister, Karen). She was in one of the vehicles with tinted windows so you couldn’t see in. They said that if he consented to a search, they would release her that day with just a date for an immigration court hearing, but if he did not consent, they would bring her to jail. So that was a lot of pressure against the homeowner.
Right at that moment, Jose walked out the door, and they detained him immediately I turned around, and I didn’t see them release the homeowner’s wife, but I saw her lying on the pavement just sobbing, face down. She was sobbing as hard as I’ve seen anyone sob.
ICE declined my request for an interview to discuss the tactics used to arrest Montelongo, including the threats made to his family members, but did issue the following statement.
Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, ICE Public Affairs Officer:
On April 19, 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Jose Guadalupe Montelongo-Morales and placed him into removal proceedings. An immigration judge with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted him bond, and ICE released him after he posted bond.
Previously, in November 2016, an immigration judge with EOIR granted Montelongo-Morales a voluntary departure and ICE repatriated him to Mexico at that time.
Further, relevant databases indicate Montelongo-Morales has two misdemeanor convictions (5/2013 and 3/2016) for driving under the influence of alcohol.
An immigration judge with EOIR will determine if Montelongo-Morales has a legal basis to remain in the United States.
“How would you feel?”
This past June, a judge dismissed Montelongo’s lawsuit against the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, ruling that because ICE lifted the detainer, he no longer had legal standing to sue. Montelongo and his lawyer are appealing the ruling. And this coming January, Judge Linda Spencer-Walters will rule on Montelongo’s case in immigration court in Phoenix.
Some people in my community don’t agree with me for speaking out because they’re afraid. They were like, “You shouldn’t have done that. You just made it worse it for everybody.” But it’s not like that, because ICE is gonna come no matter what. If they’re looking for someone or they’re gonna do raids, no one can stop them. That’s ICE.
They came for me, and they were gonna get me no matter what.
There are still days when I’m just tired of this. I can’t work, I can’t drive. And … like, what am I doing? Sometimes I want to give up. I just want to say, “I’m done, I’ll go back (to Mexico), or go to another country.” But it’s kind of hard to because my whole family is here. My kids motivate me a lot. I need to fight — then at least I can tell them I tried.
How would you feel if you were in my situation?
What do you think is fair?
What would you have done?
Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado.