Immigrant-rights advocates are mounting an all-out push to stop the deportation of a Mennonite Iowa pastor who sneaked into the U.S. illegally, arguing that his past immigration violations and criminal history should be forgiven if President Obama is really committed to keeping families together.
Federal agents arrested Max Villatoro this month as part of a nationwide dragnet operation designed to prove that the administration is still trying to deport serious criminals and security risks. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, citing Mr. Villatoro’s criminal history including convictions for drunken driving and tampering, said that made him a priority even under the relaxed rules Mr. Obama announced last year.
Advocates say nearly two decades of a clean record since then, Mr. Villatoro’s U.S. citizen children and his ties to the community as a pastor make him the first big test of the president’s enforcement priorities.
“The reason it’s getting national attention is because if Max Villatoro does not qualify as an exemption to enforcement priorities, who does? And if he doesn’t, does this just mean we’re going to have a deportation checklist, like before, with no discretion?” said David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who has taken up the case.
ICE, the agency that handles deportations, nabbed Mr. Villatoro early this month as part of Operation Cross Check, which picked up 2,059 illegal immigrants deemed serious safety problems. To be targeted, immigrants had to meet one of the two top priorities Mr. Obama laid out in November: threats to national or border security, or repeat-law offenders and those with significant misdemeanors such as driving under the influence.
Mr. Villatoro, 41, first entered the U.S. illegally in the 1990s. The Department of Homeland Security tried to deport Mr. Villatoro in 2006, and a judge has twice denied his appeals, The Associated Press reported.
He is being held by immigration officers and could be removed at any time under the court’s previous orders.
“ICE remains focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes threats to national security, public safety, and border security,” the immigration agency said in a statement. “The agency exercises prosecutorial discretion, on a case-by-case basis, as necessary to focus resources on these priorities.”
The issue has bedeviled Mr. Obama for years. Those who favor a crackdown say the president has been too lenient on longtime illegal immigrants by drastically cutting the number of deportations from the interior of the country and creating a de facto amnesty. Some of those who have been targeted for deportation have ignited protests from immigrant rights advocates who say they are law-abiding, except for their immigration violations, and point to their family and community ties.
Trapped in between, Mr. Obama has moved steadily toward the side of the advocates, culminating in a policy in November that granted a temporary amnesty from deportation to millions of illegal immigrants, and said that even most of the rest of the 11 million illegal immigrants who don’t qualify for the amnesty should not be deported.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a memo laying out priorities for deportation, and Mr. Obama said there would be consequences for ICE agents who went beyond those priorities.
That is what has miffed Mr. Villatoro’s supporters.
“I think Max is the perfect example of somebody President Obama has said should not be deported,” said David Boshart, executive conference minister for the Central Plains Mennonite Conference, who has mentored Mr. Villatoro. “It seems to me the ICE officials who are not exercising prosecutorial discretion in this situation are defying the memo of Secretary Johnson of November 2014, and President Obama said those people working for ICE who don’t follow the memo will face consequences.”
Mr. Villatoro’s backers, who know him as “Pastor Max,” say he left his criminal days behind him years ago, paid his fines, completed probation and lived in the country without problems since then. In 2010, he moved to Iowa City, Iowa, to start a church.
His congregants and others from his community held a rally Tuesday, and his case has become a cause for immigrant rights advocates nationally. Mr. Boshart said supporters are trying to get signatures from other clergy on a petition seeking a meeting with Mr. Johnson and ICE Director Sarah Saldana to talk about Mr. Villatoro’s case.
Meanwhile, Mr. Leopold has filed an emergency motion to have the case reopened by the Board of Immigration Appeals, citing the dangers of deporting Mr. Villatoro back to his home country of Honduras. An uncle of his was killed there. A nephew was shot and eventually fled to the U.S., echoing the stories the administration cited in welcoming tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from Central America who surged across the border last summer.
If Mr. Villatoro is deported, it would create a painful decision for his wife, Gloria, who is not from Honduras, and the family’s four children, who are all U.S. citizens, Mr. Boshart said.
Mr. Leopold said the problem isn’t the priorities Mr. Obama and Mr. Johnson laid out, but whether immigration agents will use discretion in carrying them out.
He said Mr. Obama’s discretion was bolstered by a Texas judge last month. While ruling that much of Mr. Obama’s proactive deportation amnesty was likely illegal, the judge said the president does have absolute powers to decide who is deported.
Operation Cross Check has caused other headaches for the administration.
The Homeland Security Department said this week that nearly two dozen of the illegal immigrants netted in the five-day operation had been approved for Mr. Obama’s 2012 amnesty for Dreamers.
Of those, 15 were still active participants in the “deferred action” program at the time they were arrested, while eight others had their amnesty lapse. Most of those who were still part of the program were convicted of crimes after their approval, the Homeland Security Department said.
The fact that some deferred action recipients were kicked out of the program and are on a path to deportation could boost the administration’s argument in the case pending with a Texas judge.
The administration argues that the amnesty isn’t a program, but rather a set of guidelines agents and officers are to follow, under the president’s inherent powers of prosecutorial discretion. Justice Department attorneys contend that since immigrants can be kicked out of the program, it proves the discretionary nature.