In the days before her husband was deported back to his native Mexico this February, a Las Vegas woman took her children to the jail to visit their father.
The woman, whom The Nevada Independent is identifying by her initials M.A.M. to protect her children’s identities, said she tried to be strong after her husband was arrested in January. A traffic stop in East Las Vegas had turned up unpaid traffic tickets that had become warrants.
The youngest of their three children, a 6-year-old boy, was visibly shaken when he returned home from the outing.
"He would drop to the ground. I felt like he was going to faint," the mother said in Spanish, fighting back tears as she recounted the story to a reporter from a small room in a strip mall in downtown Las Vegas. "He cried his heart out expressing a pain I can’t explain. He said, 'Mommy, my heart is broken!’”
Her husband’s case raises questions for lawmakers who are considering whether to continue classifying traffic citations as criminal offenses that, if unpaid, can morph into warrants that lead to arrests. Entering a jail puts undocumented immigrants on the radar of immigration authorities and can lead to deportation.
The Nevada Independent’s analysis of documents obtained through a public records request shows that from January through mid-September 2018, there were 138 instances in which ICE requested either the Henderson or city of Las Vegas jail place an immigration hold on someone who was booked for no charges more serious than a traffic offense. Lack of a driver’s license was mentioned in 105 of those instances, and bench warrants in 95 cases; in four cases, people appeared to have first attracted police attention by issues with their bicycle lights, and in two, for jaywalking.
Those numbers do not include bookings from the Clark County Detention Center, which is operated by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. The agency denied The Independent’s request for booking logs and ICE detainers that could help determine how many people came onto ICE’s radar because of a traffic issue alone. Metro said ICE considered the information confidential.
The father’s deportation, and the lack of access to documents on how Metro is cooperating with ICE, raise questions about whether a recent policy change articulated by Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo, with the stated intent of not sending people into deportation proceedings for traffic issues, is doing much to prevent deportations over minor crimes.
“The sheriff’s statement struck me as only talking about who fills out the paperwork, not the really important issue of, are you actively working with ICE to deport people who only have traffic offenses?” said Michael Kagan, director of UNLV’s Immigration Clinic. “And that’s the really important question.”
Metro officials point out they didn’t transfer the father to ICE but released him to the custody of other Southern Nevada jurisdictions — who haven’t made policy declarations like Lombardo’s. The city of Henderson and the city of Las Vegas both say they notify ICE about suspected undocumented immigrants who they have in custody, regardless of the severity of charges. The father was in the Henderson jail when he was taken into ICE custody.
The deportation has taken a toll on the three siblings, who are all U.S. citizens. Their mother said the grades of the two older children, ages 15 and 17, have dropped, and they have lost motivation to go to school.
In the weeks following their father’s deportation, the family had to move to California to stay with family because they could not afford to live on their own. That move has further affected their academics.
“My dad isn’t a criminal. He hasn’t killed anybody. He only had two traffic tickets, which were not even like of high grade,” his 15-year-old son said. “He wasn’t legalized here, but we’re not raised into being criminals, and I just wish that [authorities] didn’t separate families just like they’re doing.”
The path to deportation
M.A.M. rubbed her hands and shed tears as she spoke with a reporter about her family’s ordeal.
She said her husband had entered the U.S. illegally and had attempted to gain legal status in the 1980s with help from the people who employed him at the time. But a personal emergency forced him to return to Mexico, leaving the effort to legalize his status unfinished.
M.A.M. said she didn’t remember clearly if her husband reached out for help to a bona fide immigration attorney, or a notario (a person without a law degree who may promise help with immigration papers but often cannot deliver). But she said when he returned to the United States two years later, her husband couldn’t locate that person, and so the case stalled.
"As a low-income person, he didn’t have enough education to know where to turn to," M.A.M. said.
That unresolved effort is what caused problems when the father was stopped while driving in East Las Vegas on Jan. 14. Las Vegas police spokesman Aden Ocampo Gomez said the father initially gave an alias to the responding officer, but when told he matched the description on file, he offered his real name and acknowledged he had arrest warrants.
Documents from the family show that the Department of Homeland Security requested a detainer on him the day after his arrest, indicating that he had a final deportation order against him. ICE noted the father had previously entered the country illegally near Ajo, Arizona on Aug. 12, 2010, was processed as an expedited removal and was removed to Mexico Aug. 13, 2010.
The warrants against him — from North Las Vegas, Metro and Henderson — all stemmed from unpaid traffic tickets for failing to yield and driving without a license. Those kinds of bench warrants can be cleared, sometimes with help from volunteer lawyers at community clinics, if the fines are paid, but undocumented immigrants sometimes do not clear them because they don’t have the money to pay the ticket or are avoiding further interaction with the legal system out of fear of deportation.
Public records show that after the father left the Clark County Detention Center on Jan. 16, he went to the city of Las Vegas Jail to clear a warrant out of North Las Vegas.
The city of North Las Vegas said he was held on two bench warrants. North Las Vegas does not operate its own jail but instead contracts with the city of Las Vegas, which says it cooperates with ICE.
“The city complies with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program 287(g), which requires notification of ICE if undocumented immigrants who have committed a crime are booked into the city of Las Vegas Jail,” Las Vegas city officials said in a statement.
Then he went to the Henderson Detention Center on Jan. 23 to resolve a contempt of court warrant from the city of Henderson for $2,100. He spent three weeks serving his sentence for that issue and then was transferred to ICE custody as a result of a detainer, Henderson officials said.
From there, the father was sent back to Mexico on Feb. 19. He has been living with his sister and struggling to find a steady job because of a work-related injury he sustained in the U.S.
Scrutiny over 287(g)
The father’s case comes amid recent scrutiny over the 287 (g) agreement between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD). Through the agreement, state and local law enforcement are trained to perform some of the duties of ICE officers within jails.
Critics say it’s inappropriate for Nevada to expend local resources to serve as a force-multiplier for ICE — an agency that some activists don’t even think should exist. In early February, activists held a press conference outside Metro offices to protest the agency’s participation in the program and described the department as part of "a deportation machine."
A day later, Las Vegas police lobbyist Chuck Callaway, told the Assembly Judiciary Committee that Metro was changing its policy so that those arrested for low-level offenses wouldn’t be so easily detained and put in the custody of federal immigration officials.
Lombardo explained the change in a post on Twitter.
“I made the decision last year for my staff to not put detainers on people who ONLY have low level traffic bench warrants. The process involves a very detailed review of an arrestee’s criminal history before a determination is made to place a detainer,” he wrote on Feb. 13.
Because the agency hasn't released records related to their partnership with ICE, it's impossible to verify whether the agency is holding to that practice.
Immigrant advocates don’t deny that many people in Nevada are eligible for deportation — Pew Research has estimated that nearly 8 percent of Nevada’s population, or more than 200,000 people, is undocumented. But they say it’s a matter of prioritizing limited resources and focusing on preventing serious crimes.
“The issue, though, is who is your priority, and that is really the big battle because the rhetoric from ICE and from the administration and from the sheriff is all about fighting serious criminals,” Kagan said. “But then if someone simply has a minor traffic conviction, that’s different from what the public’s being told about who’s being targeted.”
ICE did not provide statistics solely for the state of Nevada, but has reported that its Salt Lake City field office — which includes Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Montana — logged 5,754 arrests in the 2018 fiscal year and deported 3,408 people that year.
A policy debate
Nevada lawmakers have taken steps to address plights like those of the father, although some of those efforts appear to be ill-fated. One is AB411, which would make acts that are currently criminal offenses — such as driving without a valid license, a common reason immigrants end up in jail — a civil infraction rather than a minor crime that can escalate into a bench warrant and jail time.
Some states have already moved to treating tickets as a civil infraction. Kagan believes Nevada’s current arrangement is a dragnet that helps ICE pick up low-hanging fruit among deportable people.
“They’re using the traffic tickets as a vehicle … to find people they can deport,” he said.
But on Thursday, Assembly Judiciary Chairman Steve Yeager said he’s not sure the bill will advance. Municipalities have raised concerns about the logistical aspects of implementing the bill and have questioned what recourse they would have over people who simply don’t show up to court.
Legislative leaders also killed AB281, a measure that would prevent law enforcement from keeping someone in custody for immigration authorities if there is not probable cause that the person committed another crime. Although the bill explicitly preserved 287(g) and the right of law enforcement to share information with ICE, it attracted strident opposition from Republicans who say it would turn Nevada into a sanctuary state. Those critics claimed victory after bill died.
Assembly leaders said that the narrative surrounding the bill had spun out of control and, because Metro says it’s already doing the things the bill calls for, they wanted to pursue legislation that would make a difference in people’s lives. They also pointed to AB376, a bill that is moving forward and calls for the annual release of statistical information about how many people local law enforcement agencies are transferring to ICE and what local charges landed them in jail to begin with.
“We’re not letting up at all. We’re just saying, let’s get a handle on what’s accurate,” said Democratic Assembly Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson. “Let’s make sure that we know what’s going on and what the practices are from county to county, so that’s data we’re going to be collecting.”
In the meantime, the family is left to pick up the pieces after the deportation. Money has been scarce.
M.A.M. said she and her husband had agreed that he would go to work in construction so she could stay home with the children and provide better care for them. Now the sole breadwinner, having just landed a job in California, M.A.M said she’s sad that she won’t be able to care for her children as she did before.
And the children miss their father’s presence.
“Talking … goofing around with him,” his 17-year-old daughter said of the things she misses most about her dad. “We made my mom mad sometimes, but it was funny. We messed around like that with each other.”
M.A.M. said that authorities should re-focus on those who commit serious crimes and should take into account the unique circumstances of each immigrant in their custody.
"Sometimes it's the money that doesn’t let us do things right, like we want," the woman said about her husband. "He tried really hard, but couldn’t get the amount to avoid his arrest."