For two years, Juana Reyes helped feed her two small children and pay her rent by selling tamales at the Walmart Supercenter parking lot on Florin Road.
Now the undocumented single mom faces possible deportation for peddling her chicken, pork and chili cheese tamales. Reyes was arrested for trespassing June 28 after the store's security guard and Sacramento County sheriff's deputies said they repeatedly told her to take her tamales elsewhere.
Reyes spent 12 days in the Sacramento County jail until the trespass charge was dropped, said her lawyer, Julia Vera, and her children Cesar Cuesta, 10, and Monserrat Cuesta, 7 were put in foster care during that time.
Reyes has been in California for 16 years and has no criminal history, according to her lawyer. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed Wednesday she has been placed in removal proceedings because she entered the United States illegally.
The case could still be dismissed Reyes is not scheduled to appear in immigration court before next year but it illustrates that, even under the Obama administration's more relaxed immigration policies, undocumented immigrants without serious criminal records can get caught up in the deportation pipeline.
The Reyes case has been picked up by supporters of a bill by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, that would limit cooperation between local law enforcement agencies in the state and federal immigration officials. Assembly Bill 1081, approved by the Senate earlier this month and pending in the Assembly, would allow police to refer only those illegal immigrants convicted of serious felonies to immigration officials.
"I am selling tamales to try and get my children ahead," a teary Reyes declared Wednesday at a news conference arranged by supporters of the Ammiano legislation. She spoke outside the Walmart where she had sold her tamales for $1 apiece.
"While I was in jail I was so sad, I couldn't eat; all I could think about was my children," said Reyes, 46.
Sacramento County sheriff's spokesman Deputy Jason Ramos said store security called deputies out three times the day of the arrest because Reyes refused to leave. The third time, he said, the arresting deputy found Reyes' children waiting in her brown 1996 Nissan sedan.
The deputy asked her children to translate and tell their mom she would be arrested if she didn't leave the parking lot, Ramos said. "She refused, so he took her into custody for misdemeanor trespass and contacted CPS," Ramos said.
Reyes and her children maintain they received no warning that she would be arrested if she didn't leave. Reyes also claimed the arresting officer refused to turn her children over to relatives who came to the scene.
ICE learned of Reyes' undocumented status because the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department is one of hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide participating in programs that give ICE agents access to jail records.
Reyes was identified as a deportable alien during a routine screening at the jail by officers assigned to ICE's Criminal Alien Program, said agency spokeswoman Virginia Kice. Reyes was turned over to ICE July 10, and released pending an immigration hearing.
ICE attorneys are reviewing Reyes' case "to determine how the agency should appropriately proceed," Kice said.
The government could exercise prosecutorial discretion and close the case administratively the equivalent of dismissing the case, Vera said.
Under the new immigration guidelines, she could also get leniency if she can show she has been in the country for more than 10 continuous years, has good moral character and relatives who are U.S. citizens. "We'd have to show there would be extreme, unusual hardship if she's separated from her American-born kids," Vera said.
On a good day, Reyes said, she makes $15 profit on 50 tamales. She said that when she and her common-law husband split up four years ago, she began making tamales the way her mother taught her in Hidalgo, Mexico.
"She told me to mix the lard really, really well with the dry ground corn until it's smooth, then add cumin soaked in water and a little chicken broth," Reyes said as she made a fresh batch Wednesday morning.
McGeorge Law School Professor Raquel Saldana said Reyes' experience was not unique. Despite the Obama administration's "rhetoric about prosecutorial discretion and how they don't want to backlog the system," Saldana said, "there's still quite a few people being deported without serious criminal records."
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