Her illegal dad
The Obama administration took her father. Now she worries that Trump will come for her.
It’s been nine years since Angela Velazquez last saw her dad. In that time, Angela realizes, she’s inherited a trait that neither she nor her old man particularly wanted—fear.
She felt it that day her little sister didn’t come home, and a young Angela hesitated calling 911 because what if the police took her and her mom? It left her flushed on the side of a street that night a cop discovered she was driving without a license and impounded her car, but left her behind. Six years ago, the fear broke Angela down into panicked sobs when a driver ran a red light and totaled her vehicle. Not because she was hurt, but because she knew the authorities were on their way and was sure this time her luck had run out.
The 27-year-old is one of about 57,000 immigrants thought to be living in Sacramento County without authorization from the U.S. government. Angela came here from Mexico with her parents on a tourism visa when she was about 5. The plan was for her father Alberto to apply for permanent residency and, ultimately, citizenship, but he trusted the wrong lawyer and ended up flagged for deportation.
Alberto didn’t have a criminal record. He wasn’t in a gang, didn’t sell drugs. He is not one of the “bad dudes” President Donald Trump insists without evidence are surging en masse through porous borders. Alberto was a family man, a churchgoer and a community organizer before the Obama administration deported him. The same administration gradually narrowed its lens onto unauthorized immigrants with criminal records and later exempted immigrants brought here illegally as children, like Angela.
But before Obama’s reforms could fully take hold, Trump swung the pendulum back like a pickax. He’s signed executive orders that prioritize virtually every unauthorized immigrant for removal, that drastically limit the right to appear before an immigration judge and that call for a $21.6 billion border wall that American taxpayers, not Mexican ones, are being asked to finance.
Trump’s proxies, meanwhile, have threatened to withhold funding from any state or local jurisdiction that doesn’t aid or abet federal immigration authorities sweeping into their towns and scouring their neighborhoods and jails.
California is public enemy No. 1 on the president’s list, and the capital city is agitating to be the heart of the state’s bold resistance.
All these forces converged last week in Sacramento, where, in an unprecedented move, county Sheriff Scott Jones brought Trump’s top immigration cop to stand before an angry, convulsive town hall crowd.
Jones said the point of the forum was to separate fact from fiction, but it ended up underscoring his department’s murky relationship with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Since Trump took office, that “passive cooperation,” as Jones describes it, has specialized in rounding up mostly Hispanic men with minimal or nonexistent criminal records, an SN&R investigation has found.
What happened to the Velazquez family is nothing new. It’s the kind of Kafkaesque calamity that has quietly demolished legions of undocumented families living in America. These stories have happened under both Republican and Democratic administrations unable to reform a bottlenecked immigration system that spends most of its resources driving away the poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.
The difference now is that a real estate mogul with a penchant for extemporaneously slandering minorities and immigrants is the 45th president of these United States. And where reformers see a bottleneck, he sees something to be broken into a sharp, jagged weapon and waved at those who used to think this was their home.
“At least in the immigrant community, none of us feel safe,” Angela said.Frightened in the land of the free
Alberto Velazquez’s attorney petitioned on her client’s behalf for political asylum, which Alberto wasn’t eligible for. The Department of Homeland Security sent its rejection letter—and a court summons—to a wrong address in Los Angeles. By the time Alberto found out, it was too late. His attempts to follow the rules had endangered his family.
“My dad felt under constant threat of deportation,” Angela said. “Because he was our ticket to residency and he lost his opportunity, we all lost our opportunity.”
Still, that didn’t stop Alberto from trying to help others. Through his church, he began volunteering with Sacramento Area Congregations Together. That turned into a job with PICO, a national network of faith-based organizations, of which Sacramento ACT is an affiliate.
Angela says her dad also started his own nonprofit, North Valley Sponsoring Committee. Based in Sacramento, it assisted mostly undocumented immigrants in northern farm counties, men and women who had qualified for amnesty under the Reagan administration but hadn’t applied for citizenship. Alberto offered these farmworkers what he didn’t get: free, honest legal assistance. He connected them with law students, who could evaluate whether they were eligible for citizenship and help them with the application process. And he hosted free citizenship classes to prepare them for the tests in English. Alberto’s group sponsored citizenship applications for 300 to 400 people each year, Angela says.
In 2008, Alberto’s work led to an advocacy opportunity in El Salvador. He reluctantly accepted, knowing it came with a risk. PICO called him back stateside for training two years later. Alberto flew to Mexico, caught a short boat ride to the San Diego border, and tried to cross using a coyote. His group was arrested and sent to a detention facility. Alberto was initially offered what’s sometimes referred to as a “snitch visa,” if he agreed to testify against the smuggler Alberto and others paid to get them home. But that offer was rendered moot when the coyote pleaded guilty, triggering immediate deportations for everyone in the group, Angela says. Alberto eventually went back to work in El Salvador. He hasn’t been home since.
The deportation of people who are trying to reunite with their families and have no aggravating factors could potentially explode under the Trump administration, noted Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Political Advocacy Department.
There are early indications this could already be happening.
According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse data project on immigration, nine out of 10 removal cases filed in immigration court during the first weeks of the Trump era are based on illegal entry claims or other immigration charges.
“In only 2 percent of the cases were persons charged with having an aggravated felony, while an additional 6 percent were charged with participating in other types of criminal behavior,” the TRAC report states. “There were no terrorism charges, and just three cases where the individual was charged with a ’national security violation.’”
This isn’t entirely different from the Obama administration, and it’s too soon to draw any substantive conclusions, TRAC is careful to note. But Trump’s populist directives have unleashed a wildfire reaction, particularly in California, where immigration sweeps vanished more than 160 people around Los Angeles in February, prompting panic of a new, terrible normal in the state with the most immigrants to lose.
State Senate leader Kevin de León is pushing legislation to enshrine California as a sanctuary state. Before last week’s local immigration forum, de León stumped forcefully for Senate Bill 54, which he’s titled the California Values Act. Referring to the research that shows undocumented residents commit fewer crimes than native-born ones, de León told a crowd that packed in at the edge of a parking lot, “We celebrate diversity. We don’t ban it, we don’t wall it off and we don’t deport it.”
Later, de León would make a more measured case to Sheriff Jones and acting ICE Director Thomas D. Homan.Eruption of distrust
Before they stopped letting people in and making them leave their signs at the door, before someone called the sheriff a “shit stain” and a handful of protesters were escorted out of the gymnasium, before the nation’s top immigration cop admitted he couldn’t predict the whims of the Trump administration and a Holocaust survivor brought the house down, there was this one accidental moment that encapsulated the evening:
It was 40 minutes before the community forum on immigration enforcement started inside the Sacramento County Youth Gym on Branch Center Road, a relocated setting after Sheriff Jones caught wind of the planned protests and moved his event outside of the city. Various elected officials, people from different advocacy groups (many wearing “We don’t trust Scott Jones” stickers), interested individuals and camera-fussing media types idled near a strip of shaded grass rimming the parking lot, waiting for someone to do something worth documenting. Bulky TV cameras balanced on meaty shoulders pointed into an empty semicircle. Someone started strumming “This Land Is Your Land,” picking up voices along the way. At one point, the familiar bellow of Oak Park resident and O.G. rabble-rouser Kevin Carter escaped the scrum: “We didn’t have papers either,” he said of his African ancestry, brought to this country in slave ships. “But God had papers on us.”
As members of the crowd mmm-hmm’ed, sheriff’s employees, in monogrammed polo shirts, cargo khakis and narrow, black sunglasses that the department must buy in bulk, fussed with an interlinked stretch of bike-rack barricades used for crowd control. The employees had successfully sealed off one opening onto the gym grounds, but were struggling to create a new port of entry into the gym.
And Mayor Darrell Steinberg needed to use the restroom.
So picture, if you will, a half-dozen cops and plainclothes detectives with slick hair and starched suits wrestling to pry loose two metal gates as Steinberg stood on the other side of this waist-high wall. On one side, a Democratic mayor who reflects California’s political antipathy to Trump’s deportation agenda. On the other side, the local cops whom Trump wants to help carry it out.
Once inside, these differences became less abstract.
As the hall filled up, factions began disrupting an event that hadn’t even started. One group, dressed in white T-shirts painted to read “ICE OUT” together, was particularly vocal. The chants missed the point for Howard Guy Stork, who found an aisle seat near the front and wore a U.S. Marine Corps ball cap on his sharp-cornered head. “I’m a wall supporter,” he said, explaining it’s because he’s worried about the drug cartels the Mexican military is struggling to contain. “They’re very, very dangerous.”
The event started a few minutes late when Jones began speaking. Immediately, someone in the audience shouted, “Fuck you!” The acoustics were crystal clear. Unlike the ICE chief beside him, Jones appeared unfazed, saying this was a good opportunity to go over some ground rules about decorum. Two men in the bleachers, with the group wearing the painted T-shirts, were responsible for many of the outbursts.
It was while the sheriff espoused the “diversity of ideas” that one of the men called Jones a “racist piece of shit.” (They were eventually escorted out.) Jones plodded through his prepared statement. “This is an unprecedented opportunity. Nowhere before has the director of ICE sat before a town hall forum with a law enforcement executive to provide information,” he said. Jones asked the audience to show acting ICE Director Homan “the best of what Sacramento has to offer.”
If Jones meant the area’s talent for colorful, compound profanity, the crowd did not disappoint.
Homan seemed less at ease facing the public. “I didn’t have to be here tonight,” he told the audience after it booed his introduction.
He stuck to talking points about how ICE is a law enforcement agency like any other, how he doesn’t get to choose which laws he enforces. Judging by the applause, about a quarter of the audience agreed with him. Homan claimed his 20,000 agents don’t conduct immigration “sweeps” and respect a “sensitive locations” policy that’s supposed to keeps ICE off school grounds, out of churches and hospitals. Media reports have contradicted those statements. He said a father who was arrested after dropping off his kid at school was apprehended six blocks away from the campus. To which someone in the bleachers yelled, “That’s still near the school, you fucking dickhead!”
For two hours, this whole thing felt on the verge of collapse. The air was charged, people were tense, frightened. If this was a snapshot of modern political discourse, it wasn’t a very promising one.
It also wasn’t unprecedented, reminded Bernard Marks, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland. During the Q&A portion of the forum, Marks revealed that he spent a chunk of his childhood in a Nazi concentration camp. He survived, his family and millions of other people did not. Marks explained that he’d lived the aftermath of events that began with red-faced town hall crowds and men in uniforms defending their orders. He addressed his last point to Jones directly:
“History is not on your side,” he said to an explosive ovation.
Angela Velazquez didn’t attend, though a printout photo of her dad and sister circulated outside. She says members of the undocumented immigrant community were warned to stay away, lest the forum double as an enforcement trap.
After the event ended, Homan beat a hasty exit, but Jones stuck around to answer questions.
The sheriff made one concession during the evening. He said he would not allow his cops to act as a de facto immigration force, one of the president’s more controversial strategies for ramping up deportation efforts in the homeland. But Jones said he had no plans to stop subletting space at his jail for ICE to detain male immigrants targeted for removal.
Asked whether the detainees in his jail have been convicted of serious crimes, minor offenses or none at all, Jones replied, “I don’t know. You’d have to ask ICE. Because it’s really kind of their jail inside of our jail.”Documented lies
It was just past 3 a.m. on a Monday last April when Galt police Officer Daniel Callison says he saw the black Honda Accord wobbling along a darkened, two-lane stretch of Highway 99.
According to the police report Callison later filed, the patrolman paced the 2014 sedan going approximately 80 mph, watching its tires bump over the yellow fog line on the left side of the road, then gradually drift back into its original lane before swerving a little more.
The officer made his siren squawk, and the Accord pulled off of the highway, stopping past a roundabout at Twin Cities Road and Stockton Boulevard. Two men sat in the car. The driver was in his early 40s, short and a little heavyset. An identification card from the Mexican consulate’s office said this was Fernando Solorio, a native of Michoacan in Mexico, now living in Natomas, a Sacramento suburb about 30 miles north. He had bloodshot, watery eyes and smelled of alcohol, Callison wrote in his report.
Solorio admitted drinking a few beers, but didn’t think he was intoxicated. Callison noticed the unopened cans of Modelo “strewn” through the cabin and asked the driver to exit. Solorio didn’t speak much English, but Callison thought he understood enough to follow his commands. Even with the language barrier, Callison felt Solorio botched his field sobriety test and wrote that Solorio later refused to submit to a breathalyzer, but only after the officer says he caught Solorio puffing out his cheeks and pretending to blow through the tube a couple of times. An hour later, Solorio was getting his blood drawn at the county jail downtown, which later revealed his blood alcohol content to be 0.11 percent, three ticks over the legal limit.
A criminal complaint for driving under the influence was filed a couple of months later in Sacramento Superior Court, but never went anywhere. Solorio wasn’t arraigned on formal charges. His record remained clean.
On February 28 of this year, Solorio brought that clean record into the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, where the 42-year-old is being held for deportation.
Since 2000, the sheriff’s department has sublet space at its jail facilities for immigration detainees like Solorio. While the department’s current five-year contract with the federal government is up for renewal next year, the sheriff has said he has no intent of ending an arrangement that nets his agency an extra $4 million to $6 million each year.
“I do not have any desire to get rid of that contract any time soon. And it’s overly simplistic to say that it’s just a money grab,” Jones told reporters after the forum. “If I didn’t have that contract, even though advocates might like to think that those [detainees] would just be let out, they would not. ICE would just simply remove them to other facilities around the state.”
Speaking before last week’s immigration forum, Mayor Steinberg told a scrum of media types he wanted the sheriff to explain the reasoning behind the controversial detention contract.
“Our county jail is overflowing its design capacity,” Steinberg contended. “What is your justification for contracting with the federal government to generate revenue and become immigration enforcement agents when you are so far over capacity and don’t have enough space to adequately accommodate inmates that commit real crime here in Sacramento?”
On Tuesday, county Supervisor Phil Serna told SN&R that he was inclined to reconsider an arrangement that he himself voted in favor of in 2013, the last time the local detention contract was renewed.
“Putting aside the philosophical differences, let’s look at it from a practical standpoint,” he said. “Do we have the space to rent to the U.S. government, and is it the right thing to do? Add to that, is it the right thing to do during a Trump administration that has made it clear it’s going to war with immigrants?”
Serna’s four colleagues on the board didn’t respond to SN&R’s requests for comment.
What neither Serna nor Steinberg asked—and what immigration attorneys and advocates say they haven’t been able to figure out beyond a handful of troubling news reports—is just who is being rounded up for deportation these days.
If Sacramento County’s main custodial facility is any indication, these are not the “bad hombres” we’ve been promised.
Before and after his election, Trump repeatedly used the term to justify his expanding deportation dragnet. While the president has mostly stopped using xenophobia-laced Spanglish, he has kept insisting that vastly more undocumented immigrants, particularly those from Latin nations, need to be purged from this country, as he did in February, during a meeting with manufacturing industry CEOs.
“You see what’s happening at the border. All of a sudden, for the first time, we’re getting gang members out, we’re getting drug lords out. We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country, and at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before, and they’re the bad ones,” Trump said to reporters covering the meeting.
Well, Solorio is no anomaly. According to a three-month review of court and booking records, the vast majority of local immigrants passing through RCCC for deportation proceedings either have minor criminal records or none at all.
SN&R was able to track down criminal and court data for 52 undocumented immigrants living in Northern California who now face deportation.
Of that group, only 14 had committed serious or multiple offenses in their home counties, crimes ranging from felony vehicle theft and burglary to domestic violence, assault and rape.
Back in November, for instance, Dexter Josephcuya Zonio, 34, of Carmichael, was convicted of sexually assaulting someone with a mental or physical disability, according to online court data. Zonio was sentenced to 364 days in jail and five years on formal probation. Booking logs show that immigration authorities picked Zonio up from local jail custody at the end of February and transported him to an undisclosed detention facility outside of the area.
Fifteen other detainees had been convicted of lower-level misdemeanors, mostly DUIs. These were individuals like Cesar Emmanuel Solis-Garcia, 27, of Sacramento, who was convicted this past December for one misdemeanor count of entering a residential dwelling without permission. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years on informal probation. He has been in RCCC’s detention unit since March 16.
Or Rodrigo Roman-Benitez, 30, of Citrus Heights, another ICE detainee inside RCCC. Roman-Benitez was sentenced to 145 days of community service and five years on informal probation over a misdemeanor DUI conviction on February 10, the same day that immigration authorities picked him up from an ICE holding facility in San Francisco and brought him here.
But the biggest proportion, representing 20 detainees who had been living in Sacramento County, had no criminal records. These include four people who were arrested but never convicted. But most had no run-ins with the law, according to records.
That means 67 percent of the immigrant detainees that SN&R could find records for had committed nonserious offenses or no crimes at all.
SN&R asked Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and a recognized immigration expert, to review its findings.
In an email, Johnson said it seemed to him that “many of the immigrant detainees were being held on relatively minor charges,” which he said would have been the case before Trump’s inauguration as well.
And that’s true.
The Obama administration famously notched record deportation numbers while espousing the strategic focus of a “priority enforcement program” meant to target criminal aliens and leave undocumented families and peaceful immigrants alone. But the program, known as PEP, wasn’t introduced until late 2014 and may never have been fully implemented, Johnson suggests.
“I did not see any real changes in enforcement,” Johnson said. “And the administration still pursued removals in some cases involving relatively minor criminal offenses.”
Now there’s a new president with a much lower standard for what constitutes a threat.A dreamer’s dream
Angela Velazquez isn’t exactly sure when she found out she was an undocumented immigrant in Sacramento, but she thinks she must have been a teenager.
This would have been about a decade ago, before California started allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, which happened starting in January 2015. So Angela knew something was up when all her friends started getting their driver’s permits and she couldn’t. Or when they started applying for financial aid for college and she didn’t qualify.
“It kind of hit me in high school,” Angela recalled. “I remember telling my friends I wanted to be president of the United States and not knowing I wasn’t eligible.”
Angela has her driver’s license now. And she’s ostensibly safe from deportation, as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections that Obama implemented in his first term for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors.
DACA grants these “dreamers” two-year deferrals from deportation and work permits if they meet several guidelines, like having been brought to the country before their sweet 16s, and having been physically present in the country on the date DACA was signed. There’s other criteria, too, that touch on education, military service and criminal backgrounds, forms to fill out, fees to pay, documents that applicants need to submit proving their age, residency, all that stuff.
Which is why Angela didn’t apply immediately. Like other undocumented immigrants, she worried that DACA was too good to be true, that it was a plot disguised as a gift, to build a database of deportables.
She waited a year, saw that DACA seemed to be operating as advertised, and applied.
Now she’s feeling a dreaded sense of deja vu. Here’s why: Granting DACA is considered an act of “prosecutorial discretion” on the part of the federal government, specifically the Department of Homeland Security. While Trump’s executive orders expanding immigration enforcement carved out an exception for dreamers like Angela, immigration experts think it’s entirely conceivable that Trump will do an end-run on DACA.
He’s tried once already.
An earlier, leaked draft of Trump’s immigration orders initially called for the dismantling of DACA. The order that Trump eventually signed didn’t go that far, but did limit deferred action, Johnson says.
Already, two dreamers have been arrested and face deportation. At last week’s forum, Homan claimed there was more to these stories than he could disclose.
“There is fear that DACA will be dismantled,” Johnson said.
Trump could do so indirectly, by directing Homeland Security to stop issuing renewals to the dreamers who already have them. So even with a DACA exemption in place, it wouldn’t matter in a couple of years, because those deferrals would have all run out.
Angela’s expires in August.
“At the moment, I feel comfortable renewing,” she said. “I hope it stays that way.”
But her status isn’t the only thing on her mind.
Angela’s mother has been waiting five years now to hear back on her citizenship application. Angela’s middle sister, a U.S. citizen, sponsored their mom when the sister turned 21, a requirement of the law. The sister is 26 now and the family is still waiting.
“Most people don’t even know what it takes,” Angela said of the legal path to citizenship.
Indeed, U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, the agency responsible for processing visa requests and citizenship applications, receives less than one-fifth the funding than do the agencies that are dedicated to kicking people out, creating a bottlenecked pathway to legal residency. This is a U.S.-made crisis, in other words. It always has been. And now Trump is looking to exploit the inaction and failures of his predecessors to reform the country’s immigration policies to enact a nationalistic deportation regime that targets everyone.
Then there’s Angela’s dad, whom she hasn’t seen for almost a decade.
Both of Angela’s U.S.-born sisters have been able to visit their father in El Salvador at least once, but Angela doesn’t dare make the trip. It’s not a journey from which she’s confident she’d be able to return.
Instead, Angela talks regularly with her dad on the phone, at least once a month.
“We have a pretty good relationship, actually. I think because he’s not around, our conversations are even more meaningful?” she posited.
The last time she spoke to her father was a couple of weeks ago. Angela says he was sad to have missed his middle daughter’s wedding a couple years ago. But he was also proud of the women his daughters were becoming in his absence. It was a father’s pride, tinged with a father’s regret. Angela feels similar ambivalence, but in a different way, like she’s staring through the other end of a long, dark tunnel the two of them share.
When she looks at the photos from her sister’s last visit a year ago, she sees a man different than the one she remembers. She sees the smiling, familiar eyes, but they’re crosshatched with more lines. There’s less hair and it’s a little grayer. Angela can’t help doing the math. Her dad is in his 60s. Average life expectancy minus her father’s age, divided by the terms of a presidency.
“Sometimes I’m scared I may not see him again,” she said.