Deporting the tamale lady

Will the United States send Juana Reyes back to Mexico—for selling $1 snacks outside of a south Sacramento Walmart?

Supporters gather around Juana Reyes (front row, second from right) last week. The former tamale vendor faces deportation to Mexico for selling eats in a south Sacramento Walmart parking lot.

Supporters gather around Juana Reyes (front row, second from right) last week. The former tamale vendor faces deportation to Mexico for selling eats in a south Sacramento Walmart parking lot.

Photo by Nick Miller

Juana Reyes says she typically prepares three different types of tamales, but that the pollo ones are her favorite. She likes the flavor when the chilies mix with the chicken, she explains, before handing over a bag of five freshly made snacks.

For more than two years, Reyes prepared and sold her tamales outside of a Walmart on Florin Road in south Sacramento. This was how she covered her $750-a-month rent—she made them twice a week, a process that takes a little more than two hours, then vended them for $1 each from her car in the Walmart parking lot. On a good day, she’d maybe earn 20 bucks.

“I am fighting and selling tamales to get my family ahead,” Reyes explained to SN&R.

But on a Thursday morning last month, June 28, a sheriff’s deputy pulled up to Reyes’ car and told her she could no longer sell her eats outside of the mega-chain.

Reyes was confused. She’d sold tamales there for so long, that even Walmart employees, according to her attorney, would come outside to buy them. But Reyes didn’t want any trouble, so she and her 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son drove off to another south Sacramento shopping mall.

There were few customers elsewhere, though, so Reyes and her kids returned after an hour to the Walmart. She’d seen a handful of other “tamale ladies” selling eats in the lot at this time. Was it OK to return? It must have been, she decided. So she got back to dishing out tamales and making ends meet.

“And then, a deputy grabs her hands and starts to cuff them,” explained Reyes’ attorney’s assistant Hugo Vera.

But before the deputy could click the handcuffs, he saw Reyes’ two children in the car. This caused him to pause, before finally placing Reyes and her kids in his patrol cruiser. For a half an hour.

The deputy ended up citing Reyes for trespassing, a minor misdemeanor in Sacramento County. According to Vera, most of the time this results in a proverbial slap on the wrist. Hardly ever a trip to the downtown main jail.

Or a deportation.

“Normally, they’d just say ‘Go away,’” Vera explained of what a deputy might typically do in a similar situation, such as, say, a skateboarder loitering on the premises.

But “go away” wasn’t Reyes’ fate. She’d lost her identification two weeks earlier, she told the deputy, who placed her under arrest. Meanwhile, Child Protective Services arrived at the Walmart to take custody of her children—this despite the fact that a handful of Reyes’ family and neighbors had converged on the scene, pleading to take the kids.

But it was no-go. The kids were off to CPS. And, as one deputy allegedly told Reyes’ son:

“They’re going to send your mom to Mexico. And you’ll never see her again.”

Attorney Julia Vera wipes tears from Reyes’ cheeks. TV cameras and media holding microphones gather around the tamale lady and her two children, who are flanked by a couple dozen supporters carrying signs that read “Full rights for all immigrants” and “TRUST Act now.” The crowd gathers on a scorching Wednesday in the same Walmart parking lot where Reyes was arrested weeks earlier. The sky is cloudless, the sun rests at high noon.

It’s been an eventful month for Reyes. After her kids were sent to CPS and she was taken downtown, deputies at the main jail grew suspicious that she was in the country illegally.

Attorney Vera’s assistant, Hugo Vera, told SN&R that this moment at the jail is how immigration policies such as the one enforced by the state of Arizona come into play in California.

“It’s blatant racial profiling,” he called it.

But it’s also legal: When current Gov. Jerry Brown was the state’s attorney general, he implemented a policy that’s now referred to as Secure Communities, or S-Comm. Basically, this allows for local governments to be the “eyes and ears,” as Hugo Vera puts it, of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Reyes’ attorney estimates that nearly 75,000 Californians have been deported under S-Comm, 70 percent of whom have had either no conviction or committed minor offenses.

In the tamale lady’s case, deputies suspected that Reyes was in the country illegally. Which was true: Julia Vera, who’s taking on Reyes’ ICE case pro bono, told SN&R that her client has been in the country for more than 16 years, including for the birth of her two children, who attend Sacramento schools and speak English.

Attorney Julia Vera (right) wipes tears from her client Reyes’ cheeks.

Photo by Nick Miller

Reyes doesn’t have any prior entanglements with the law. But now, immigration is targeting her for deportation. For her sole transgression: Selling tamales outside of Walmart.

Hugo Vera argues that there was “implied consent” for Reyes to be at Walmart. For starters, it’s a public domain, a place where shoppers are invited to go with advertising and signage. And she’d been there for years, a familiar face to employees and security guards. He says he has testimonials from Walmart employees that vouch for Reyes.

Meanwhile, Hugo Vera also questions the sheriff deputy’s motive—especially when it comes to the alleged deportation remark made to Reyes’ son.

“How does [the deputy] even know where she’s from?” Hugo Vera asked.

Sacramento County Deputy Jason Ramos would not comment on the arresting deputy’s alleged remark. But he did explain that deputies had received three complaints from Walmart security on June 28. And they decided that her trespassing was “likely to continue,” which is why they took Reyes into custody.

“Suffice to say that arresting and booking people on misdemeanor charges is not common,” Ramos added.

That day was the first time Walmart’s security company, U.S. Securities, had contacted deputies about Reyes, but a report shows that security had asked Reyes to leave the parking lot numerous times over the previous months. “I don’t know what the straw that broke the camel’s back was,” Ramos said. “Maybe there were a lot of food vendors in the parking lot that day.”

Either way, Ramos insisted that deputies typically do not address street-side food vendors or ones on private property unless asked. “And let’s face it, if you’re familiar with that Walmart and that stretch of Florin Road, there’s no shortage of food vendors.”

After the June 28 incident, Reyes spent 13 days in downtown’s main jail on an immigration hold before being released on July 10. Her ICE court date will be scheduled in the next 30 days, but Sacramento must cover all the costs for her stay at county, approximately $100 a day.

It’s an unusual case. And, as one supporter at the rally last Wednesday noted, it’s “the kind of incident people would expect in Phoenix.”

This story of the United States’ effort to deport a south Sacramento Walmart tamale lady has blown up in the Spanish-speaking media. La Opinión recently did a feature on Reyes. And one of Univision national’s lead reporters, Luis Megid, interviewed her, too. In the Hispanic and Latino communities, Reyes has become an election-year symbol of all that’s wrong and broken with America’s immigration policy.

And outrage, it seems, is the only hope for Reyes to stay in Sacramento and not be deported.

Immigration court cases can take anywhere from three to five years, says attorney Julia Vera, who adds that she has very few options in defending her client.

Reyes’ best chance hinges on the concept of “prosecutorial discretion.” Each year, ICE throws out some 4,000 cases based on certain criteria, including but not limited to whether the defendant has a clean arrest record, has been in the country for more than a decade, and also has strong family and community ties. Reyes meets all these conditions. But ICE hears millions of cases.

“Our chances of getting prosecutorial discretion are slim to none,” Julia Vera told SN&R.

Other options, such as “cancellation” or “affirmative relief,” are even less probable.

Advocates and attorneys point out that, if Reyes had been arrested another time, say later this year, she’d probably be free to go under California’s TRUST Act, which recently was approved by the state Senate and likely will be inked by Gov. Brown.

Written by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the TRUST Act is a counter to Arizona’s anti-immigration law that specifically limits local governments’ ability to hold individuals for deportation if they are not a threat to public safety.

Tamales can be hot sometimes, yes, but generally are not considered a menace to society.

But it’s too soon for TRUST. And so Reyes’ best hope is in the court of public opinion.

And that the general public is increasingly outraged upon hearing her story. Law-abiding but illegal-immigrant tamale lady arrested, has kids taken away for selling tamales outside of a Sacramento Walmart—it’s a compelling narrative, and especially here in California, a state that prides itself on being a step or two more progressive than the rest of the nation.

Reyes’ backers at the rally last week, including current city council candidate Rob Kerth, argued that her case is an extreme interpretation of immigration law that has no place in the Golden State.

Or, as Jon Rodney with the California Immigration Policy Center announced to media and supporters last week: “I think we need to remember that we have a broken immigration system in this country.”