Two undocumented Mexican workers sent to Travis Air Force Base to help renovate a hospital are now facing deportation under one of President Donald Trump’s first executive orders toughening enforcement of immigration laws.
Hugo Mejia, 37, and Rodrigo Nuñez, 35, immigrants from the Mexican state of Jalisco, were taken into custody May 3 after they checked into the visitors center at the base near Fairfield. The two men, who live in the Bay Area, have been in the U.S. for more than a decade and have U.S.-born children, said their pro bono attorney, Alisa Whitfield of Oakland-based Centro Legal de la Raza.
To protect the base, everyone entering has their IDs checked and scanned, said Air Force Capt. Lyndsey Horn. When Mejia and Nuñez entered their ID numbers, the information came back false, she said.
The men had valid California driver’s licenses but entered their taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers, Whitfield said.
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“It’s our normal procedure to call ICE when that happens,” Horn said. “They were being sponsored on the base to do construction work as part of our hospital renovation. We have 26,000 people who live and work on the base and we are a global presence.”
What happened to Mejia and Nuñez has set off alarms among thousands of hardworking undocumented immigrants who were not enforcement priorities during the Obama administration, said Holly Cooper, co-director of the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic.
“This is their biggest fear – this happens when they’re on the job,” Cooper said. “These guys are salt-of-the-earth construction workers who were on the job at an Air Force base, working for the military.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, spokesman James Schwab said that while the case falls under Trump’s executive order, “Mr. Mejia-Murguia and Mr. Nuñez-Garcia will remain in ICE custody pending court proceedings and it will be up to a judge with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to determine whether they will be subject to removal from the U.S.”
Trump’s Order No. 13768, issued Jan. 25, says “ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement.” Dubbed “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” the order also subjects more immigrants to expedited removal.
During much of the Obama administration, immigration authorities focused deportation efforts on undocumented immigrants with serious criminal histories.
Mejia, of San Rafael, is being held on behalf of ICE in Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center near Elk Grove while Nuñez, of Hayward, is at Yuba County jail.
The two men had previously been deported at the border in 2001, then re-entered the U.S. illegally, which means their original removal order can be reinstated as grounds for immediate deportation, Whitfield said. Nuñez was actually deported twice, in 2001 and 2003, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“These two men are being held in jail for the crime of being undocumented in America,” Whitfield said. “They have no other criminal history. They both work for a construction company, S & R Drywall, and their boss says they’re both star employees.”
Many undocumented immigrants run the same risks because they have prior orders of removal, Cooper said.
“It’s very scary – it’s got to be at least 10 to 15 percent of the nation’s undocumented population – and 25 to 50 percent of the people I see in ICE detention have prior orders,” Cooper said.
The detentions come as apprehensions of non-criminal undocumented immigrants by federal officials have jumped by more than 150 percent since Trump became president. Nearly 11,000 undocumented immigrants have been arrested nationwide between January 20 and April 29, with 290 of them by the San Francisco field office that covers Sacramento, according to ICE. Over the same quarter last year, 4,372 undocumented immigrants were arrested nationwide with 118 out of the San Francisco office.
Whitfield said the two men were scheduled for deportation within 48 hours after their arrest under expedited removal. But after receiving a call from Nuñez’s sister, Whitfield said, she was able to immediately call ICE to delay their deportations while she explored legal strategies.
Undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. and were removed prior to April 1, 1997, are not subject to expedited removal, Cooper said. “If I had an order of removal from 1990, they would give me a charging document and I could make my defense before an immigration judge,” she said.
If federal officials don’t exercise their prosecutorial discretion to not pursue the case – an option lawyers said seems unlikely – the two men can apply for “withholding of removal” by arguing they have a reasonable fear of being killed or tortured if they return to Mexico, Cooper said. “This would give them the opportunity to have a ‘reasonable fear interview’ with an asylum officer, but you’re not applying for asylum.”
Whitfield said she’s exploring that option, which would keep her clients from being deported but not afford them a path to legal residency.
“They would have to show the odds are greater than 50 percent they would be tortured or murdered in Mexico to actually receive this protection,” Whitfield said.