Above: Dirt roads sprawl in the neighborhood of Las Cumbres in Tijuana, Mexico, April 17 where José Alvarez is staying after being deported in the early hours of Feb. 22.
TIJUANA, Mexico — On the outer edge of the city, up a series of pitted dirt roads, José Alvarez waits alone in an unfurnished duplex. The only kitchen appliances are a mini fridge raised off the floor by cinder blocks and a camping stove on the countertop. He sleeps on an air mattress.
The house is situated between a gaping garbage-filled gulch and the scorched remains of what was once the neighbor’s house.
About four hours after what was supposed to have been just a routine traffic stop in late February, José was deported to Tijuana, a city he hadn’t set foot in since 1974, after being held at the Cal State Long Beach police substation.
The CSULB police officer who arrested José works on a campus that has made strong efforts to welcome over 900 undocumented students — one of whom is the student body president — in a city where the mayor, Robert Garcia, talks openly about about having been an undocumented immigrant.
On Feb. 21, Officer Sanchez, a CSULB police officer, pulled José over for a broken headlight on Ximeno Avenue and Los Coyotes Diagonal, an intersection that falls within the University Police’s jurisdiction a mile off campus. At the time, José was on the way from his house in Cambodia Town to pick his son Victor up from work at Krispy Kreme Donuts. It was about 10:30 p.m.
When Sanchez ran José’s driver’s license for a wants and warrants check, it triggered a hit in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement database. Shortly thereafter, dispatch notified Sanchez that an ICE agent would be calling him on his cell phone, according to the police report.
When Victor became concerned about José’s whereabouts after he failed to show up at Krispy Kreme on time, he looked through the drive-thru window. He saw that José had been pulled over by the police and walked over to the scene.
A short while after, Officer Sanchez is heard in the police audio telling the father and son that immigration officials had cleared José and that they were free to go, reminding them to get their headlight fixed.
The audio recording device, which CSULB police officers turn on and off themselves, picked up the sound of Sanchez opening and closing the police cruiser door, revving the engine and driving away.
José and Victor tried starting their car but it sputtered and overheated.
When the police audio cuts back in, a police siren is heard. Officer Sanchez had once again pulled up behind the two men, who were inspecting their engine. He told them to get back in the car.
An ICE official had told the university police officer that José was suspected of having a detainer request on him related to a felony. The crime the official was referring to is a 21-year-old nonviolent drug charge for which he had already served prison time.
Officer Sanchez, who started the traffic stop sounding confident and sometimes conversational, seemed to become increasingly more confused over the course of the hour-long stop in which he answered multiple calls from ICE.
He said he didn’t understand how José could have attained a license with an ICE hold. He questioned José multiple times about his other encounters with the Long Beach Police Department and the California Highway Patrol, which had amounted to nothing more than traffic citations.
“It makes no sense …” Sanchez said to another police officer at the scene.
According to one record from the Beverly Hills Courthouse, José paid a $90 traffic fine April 1 that he received from a CHP officer about four months ago. Records also indicate CHP stopped José in the city of Bellflower for a traffic violation Aug. 9, 2015, in a case that was subsequently dismissed.
“I don’t want you to worry too much, because I don’t know what’s going on either,” Sanchez said at one point during the traffic stop.
Later, seemingly following the directions of an ICE official, Sanchez handcuffed José and took him to a University Police substation jail cell. There, he said he could tell José is a good person, and promised to make sure he was treated well. Sanchez proceeded to give driving directions to the ICE agents, who were on their way to pick José up.
“That was a clusterf*ck,” Sanchez said to another police officer after hanging up the phone.
After ICE took custody of Jose, his family was not notified of his location until he was out of the country.
José said he doesn’t know whether he’ll ever be allowed to return to his home in Long Beach.
Above: Trash fills an enormous gulch in the middle of the neighborhood of Las Cumbres in Tijuana, Mexico, April 17 where José Alvarez is staying.
José had become caught in a quagmire of contradictory immigration laws. Federal laws, often criticized for being overly broad and inflexible, can conflict with state laws and local law enforcement policy seeking to curtail police officers’ cooperation with ICE.
University officials have repeatedly called the University Police’s cooperation with ICE to deport José an “anomaly,” saying that the Cal State Long Beach police do not otherwise cooperate with ICE.
CSULB spokesperson Terri Carbaugh said it’s fair to say the officer was confused when he “inadvertently became immersed in immigration law.”
“ … [Officer Sanchez] endeavored to do his job in the best way he knew how,” Carbaugh said. “He was somewhat in the crosshairs of confusing and sometimes conflicting laws.”
She said the university and CSULB PD were proud of Sanchez’ ability to remain professional throughout the incident.
“We know the federal government [has] failed to take action [regarding immigration law], and the university has taken action where they can … “ Carbaugh said. But for a peace officer on the ground, things can get messy.
Under normal circumstances, ICE would only be notified of a person eligible for deportation by a local police agency after that person had been arrested for criminal activity and fingerprinted. Those prints automatically result in that biometric data being bounced off ICE databases, according to ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice.
“If those prints result in a match in [the Department of Homeland Security’s] databases, the system notifies us that someone who has had a prior encounter with DHS has come into local custody,” Kice said. “It basically prompts our personnel to drill down and see if it’s someone we want to — a case we want to — pursue.”
But José had not committed a crime, only an infraction worthy of a fix-it ticket. He would not otherwise have been arrested.
ICE was notified of José’s run-in with the CSULB police officer with a name match, which Kice said is not typical since name matches can be problematic; a lot of people can have the same name.
Still, Kice said that as a “convicted drug trafficker who has been previously deported,” José was a priority for ICE.
According to a report from Human Rights Watch, “drug trafficking,” even a low-level sales offense involving small amounts of drugs — such as selling ten dollars worth of cocaine — can lead to deportation and a permanent bar from entering the country.
“It is really problematic that [CSULB police] went ahead and arrested [José] on that because they don’t have any authority under state law to make an arrest for civil immigration purposes,” said ACLU of Southern California Director of Immigrants' Rights Jennie Pasquarella.
She says that often law enforcement get confused when they see a warrant in the system from ICE, believing that it’s the same as a criminal warrant.
“It’s not,” Pasquarella said. “It’s just a form that an immigration official fills out that doesn’t get signed off on by a judge, which is a big difference from a criminal warrant, obviously.”
According to ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice in an email, ICE continues to seek to collaborate with law enforcement agencies throughout California and nationwide under the Priority Enforcement Program, an initiative aimed at ensuring that individuals who ICE says pose a threat to public safety are not released from prisons or jails onto the street. PEP relies on local police officers’ voluntary cooperation.
Andrea Donado, a member of the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization, said that if people commit crimes, the U.S. criminal justice system should be able to handle offenders without deporting them and adding to larger problems in developing countries.
ICO is a congregation-based community organization that fights for local social justice issues.
“It’s just a broken criminal justice system, just a broken system in general,” Donado said. “It’s a whole system that’s meant to criminalize minorities and those who have less.”
In Tijuana, José sat on a park bench pulled into the living room from outside and cried into the bottom of his T-shirt, gathered and held up to his face by calloused hands. The stocky, mustachioed man of 53 was trying to talk about what had happened just over two months ago.
The house in the Tijuana neighborhood of Las Cumbres belongs to his brother-in-law, the one who wasn’t killed by La Familia in Michoacán where José and his wife, Infa, are originally from.
“Innocent people get killed over there all the time,” said Susana, José and Infa’s daughter. “Back then, they killed [my mom’s] dad and her brothers.” They also disappeared one of Infa’s cousins.
José tried to return to Apatzingan, Michoacán, after being deported because he doesn’t know anyone in Tijuana, according to Donado. The violence was too much, though, and he had to leave.
Violent crime in Michoacán is on the rise, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council.
“Beheadings, lynching, torture, and other gruesome displays of violence, as well as high numbers of forced disappearances have become routine occurrences in various parts of the country …” OSAC warns that the southern state has one of the highest kidnapping rates and that crimes in general often go unpunished there.
Even so, José is not eligible for asylum in the United States.
La Familia Michoacana, a gang first formed in New York City, was a Mexican drug cartel and organized crime syndicate.
After the cartel disbanded in 2011, many of its members formed the new cartel, Los Caballeros Templarios Guardia Michoacana or Knights Templar –Guard of Michoacán.
The crime ICE cites as the reason for José’s deportation is from 1995, when José was convicted of the possession and transportation of a controlled substance — crystal meth — for which he served three and half years in prison. A crime José denies committing, claiming he was framed.
The charges imposed on José are considered an “aggravated felony” under immigration law, an umbrella term originally created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, and which has grown to include crimes as minor as subway turnstile jumping and various other nonviolent drug offenses.
People convicted of an aggravated felony are denied an individualized deportation hearing before an immigration judge, are subject to an expedited removal, are ineligible from petitioning for asylum and are barred from re-entry into the U.S. In such cases, little, if any, recourse is available for noncitizens.
According to data obtained by Human Rights Watch, between 2007 and 2012, DHS deported 266,000 noncitizens whose most serious crime was a nonviolent drug offense.
In a report published by the organization on the intersection of drug and immigration law, HRW states that current U.S. immigration policies toward drug offenders violate international law including that punishment be proportional to the offense, the right to present defenses to deportation and the right to family unity.
While noncitizens with convictions for fraud and assault can apply for a “waiver” of the bar if they can show a U.S. citizen or permanent resident family member would suffer extreme hardship, no such waiver exists for drug offenses.
José’s family members have said they do not understand why José would be deported for a conviction he has already served time for.
“If he was a criminal, I’d say sure, they have the right to deport him, but he’s not doing bad things,” Infa said.
The Immigration Act of 1990 expanded the government's power to deport and bar non-citizens with criminal convictions. It eliminated the “Judicial Recommendations Against Deportation,” a provision that had previously allowed sentencing judges to make discretionary recommendations against deportation for non-citizens.
The definition of what constitutes an "aggravated felony" was subsequently expanded by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996 to include more minor offenses, including convictions that have been expunged, such as those following diversion programs offered by drug courts.
It's important to note that an "aggravated felony" under immigration law is not necessarily equivalent to a felony under federal or state criminal law. The same offense considered an "aggravated felony," such as shoplifting, may otherwise be punishable only as a misdemeanor.
Source: Human Rights Watch and Immigration Act of 1990
Police officers and ICE agents can lawfully use their own discretion at any time to stop deportation proceedings.
However, right before Officer Sanchez arrested José, he told the family, “It’s out of my hands.”
The California Trust Act prohibits law enforcement from enforcing ICE detainers unless the person in question has been convicted of one of a defined range of crimes — which José was — in which case, law enforcement can still exercise discretion as to whether to detain a person for immigration officials if they believe the person is not a threat to the community. ICE detainers are not criminal warrants but non-mandatory requests.
A spokesperson for the Long Beach Police Department said that ICE often fails to purge their system of old warrants. For that reason, the LBPD doesn’t cooperate with ICE unless the undocumented person has committed an aggravated felony. Even then, ICE must provide a signed judicial order to hold the inmate.
“If such an order is received, a no-bail hold will be placed on the inmate, and ICE will be notified when the prisoner is ready for pick-up,” Sergeant Brad Johnson said in an email. “If a signed judicial order is not received, the inmate’s release will take place as any other normal release.”
But according to Carbaugh, CSULB PD don’t need to see a warrant; they just need to be aware that there is one.
A CSULB police officer was not made available for comment.
Carbaugh explained that because of the person’s record, José was deemed a threat to public safety, and that is why he was removed from the community.
Johnson, the LBPD spokesperson, said that any police officer who runs a wants and warrants check for someone and finds an ICE warrant for a priority 1 felony — a potentially violent felony — would cooperate with ICE.
On the federal side, a 2014 Department of Homeland Security enforcements priorities memorandum stated that immigration officials would exercise prosecutorial discretion when determining whether a prior aggravated felony should be considered a priority enforcement case. Factors to be considered included “extended length of time since the offense of conviction,” “length of time in the United States” and “family or community ties in the United States.”
In the 21 years since the charges that prompted Jose’s deportation, he has not been charged with a crime. In fact according to the ICE spokesperson, José’s criminal case was so old that it was difficult for ICE to locate his records beyond the basic facts.
Above: The Alvarez family poses for a photo together outside the duplex in Las Cumbres, Tijuana, Mexico, April 17.
Last week, José’s wife, sons and daughters and grandchildren went to visit him in Tijuana.
There, Infa recounted the night of José’s deportation. Both Infa and Susana had come to the scene of José’s arrest after Victor called them.
Infa said of Officer Sanchez, “You're not from immigration. Your job is to protect the city and give tickets. You are committing an error. Look at his hands. You know he’s a worker, he is the breadwinner. He’s not a criminal.”
José is a father of six. Four of his children either attend or have graduated from college. Victor currently studies business at Long Beach City College. Another served in the United States Marine Corps for four years. All of José’s children are U.S. citizens and his wife is a lawful permanent resident.
“Why would you separate a family that depends on [José’s] work and his income because of something he did or did not do  years ago?” Donado asked. “They are trying to paint him like if he was a very dangerous criminal to society, when he was just working here.”
José had been previously deported twice. Once in 1974 in San Francisco when he was detained by police officers and found to be in the country illegally and again after serving time in prison.
Kice said that ICE identifies potentially deportable people who are serving sentences in prison and put in a request for the prison to hand that person over to ICE upon their release.
“That happens all the time,” Kice said. “We have people coming into our custody from jails and prisons on a daily basis.”
The Soledad State Prison — which means “solitude” in Spanish — handed José over to ICE, putting him in deportation proceedings. According to Kice, he appealed his case to the Board of Immigration Appeals, but the BIA denied the appeal and José was deported to Mexico via Nogales, Arizona, in May 1999.
“I had to come back,” José said of his re-entry to the U.S. “My kids were young.” So he crossed the U.S.–Mexico border again with the help of a coyote.
Felons, Not Families
In a statement addressing immigration policy Nov. 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced that ICE would focus on "felons, not families."
It’s hard to imagine that Alvarez’ situation is what he had in mind.
Donado met the family after José’s sister-in-law got involved with ICO to support the passage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation. DACA, which the Secretary of Homeland Security announced in 2012, allows people who came to the United States before their 16th birthday deferred deportation and is renewable every two years. They can also receive work authorization.
It is under this legislation that CSULB has been able to enroll over 900 undocumented students, offering them in-state tuition and financial aid.
According to Carbaugh, the Dream Success Center, a place on campus for undocumented students to find support, has served over 200 students this year alone.
“The Dream Center was opened under the auspice of President Conoley,” Carbaugh said. “So, we embrace the immigrant community here in Long Beach, we embrace the immigrant community here on campus.”
But Donado said undocumented people in the community are afraid to go anywhere near CSULB.
Carbaugh said the campus supports lawful activity, and that the primary role of the university is to put degrees in students’ hands. She said that the university wants to offer students the opportunity to get a degree equally, and that the police are instructed not to detain undocumented students.
Victor, who said he had been planning on transferring to CSULB, said that if his father doesn’t return, he will likely have to put off college and instead work more to bring money into the household.
Six months before he was deported, José had begun working for himself as a pool plasterer after he purchased his own equipment. He’d been doing it for the last eight years. Now, he fixes the empty house in Tijuana in exchange for free rent and wonders if Victor will “do the pools” sometimes to supplement the family income.
Pasquarella said, “The more that police agencies are doing this and responding to those warrants, the more they’re driving a wedge between themselves and the community because people are not going to want to have anything to do with police if they fear that any conduct — even if it’s just to report a crime — could lead them to deportation.”
ICE on campus
A professor sent an email to faculty going over the Academic Senate meeting Thursday which said, “CSULB President Jane Conoley spoke and emphasized that she would be pushing to get our campus, and CSU campuses in general, officially designated [as] safe spaces for undocumented students.”