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Correspondent photo by Simon Rios

From left, Manuel, Juan, and Gloria Valdez in their Manchester home.
Monday, April 11, 2011

Arrests at court questioned

A spate of at least 20 immigration detentions at Nashua District Court has some immigrants, documented and undocumented, wary of appearing in court, local immigrant advocates say.

The detentions have led to questions about who is tipping off immigration officials and whether the encounters will lead to the deportation of people who have been living locally for decades.

“These people have committed no crime,” said Eva Castillo of the New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees. “Being here without a permit is a civil violation, not a crime.”

“For a civil violation, everybody gets to pay a fine…but for illegal immigrants, there’s no way to undo what they did,” said Castillo.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, between 20 and 25 such cases have occurred over the past two months.

The outcome of each of those detentions is unclear.

Castillo, who sits on the governor’s Latino affairs committee, met with one Manchester family that is facing deportation proceedings after responding to a traffic violation at Nashua District Court.

Castillo questioned how ICE is gathering information about whom to arrest and when. She also wonders why this is happening in Nashua and not in a place like Manchester, where she says the police do not contact ICE when someone’s residency is in question.

“I don’t know who’s tipping them off, if ICE decides to go on their own, if somebody at the court is doing it, if it’s the police,” Castillo said. “I have no idea what’s going on.”

Nashua Police Chief Donald Conley said Nashua police are cooperating with ICE officials, but said there is no official partnership between the two agencies.

“There is no specific operation in place relative to seeking those that are undocumented,” Conley said. “But there are times we do arrest people, if we feel they are not documented, then we may call ICE and they will make a determination as to whether or not they want to intervene.”

Conley suggested that ICE agents use court dockets to cross-reference names of undocumented individuals.

Chuck Jackson, public affairs officer at ICE headquarters in Boston, addressed that question directly.

“Only individuals who have been referred to ICE by the prosecutor or police are arrested, and no other individuals present at the courthouse are interviewed by ICE,” he said in an email.

Detained in Nashua

Five weeks ago, 19-year-old Juan Valdez was stopped by the Nashua police and ticketed for driving without a license. On March 14, he appeared in court to plead guilty and pay his fine, but was confronted by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Valdez sat in the living room of his Manchester home surrounded by dozens of burning votive candles and an altar to the saints as he described the course of events that day. He was with his father, mother and sister.

Valdez said the traffic violations clerk seemed to be taking extra time, as if to give the ICE agent a greater opportunity.

After he paid the fine and was getting ready to leave, the immigration official approached him.

He was then taken into the basement of the courthouse and detained by ICE.

Juan’s mother, who had accompanied him to his hearing, was also detained by ICE that day, she said.

“The agent asked me if I had my papers,” said Gloria Valdez. “I said I have my passport.”

Rather than be interviewed, they were put into the holding cells in the basement of Nashua District Court, Gloria Valdez said. The agent “said he wanted to speak with us, but it wasn’t to speak, it was to shackle us.”

Three weeks later, she said marks on her wrists were from the lingering bruises left by the handcuffs.

“They treat us like criminals, like we’d committed a crime, but we didn’t do anything,” Gloria said.

Gloria was soon released, but Juan was taken to Manchester, where he was questioned further. He was eventually brought to a detention facility in Dover.

Though not immediately apparent, Juan suffers from a reading disability and wears a hearing aid for deafness in his left ear. He also has impaired vision, and his glasses were confiscated by the guards at the facility, he said.

“When I was in there, I was praying to get out,” Juan said. “That’s like a whole different world that you never imagine to be in.”

While Juan was locked up, a cast of community members rushed to his support, including clergy, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s office, and state Rep. Pat Long, who represents the district where the Valdez family resides.

Attorney Enrique Mesa, who is representing the Valdez family, said Juan was released a week after his arrest, when it was demonstrated that he had mental disabilities.

“It’s discretionary,” Mesa said. “If they wanted to keep him in there, they could have. But I’m glad somebody (at ICE) has compassion, and we were able to bring him out.”

Facing deportation

Manuel Valdez is Juan’s father. He supports his family working two jobs. Earnings are never enough to tuck away any savings.

“Things are getting harder and harder around here, as it’s getting easier and easier to tie someone up,” said Manuel. “This is the first time this happens to us out of the 14 years we’ve been here. Yes, we are here. But we don’t harm anybody. We’re here to work.”

The family came to Manchester 14 years ago for work in a meatpacking plant that’s now closed. Manuel now works in metal fabrication.

Juan said his parents brought him here at the age of 3 to live a better life. “Something they never had when they were over there,” he said in a somber tone. “I think that’s what every Spanish dad wants for their son.”

Now, he’s afraid of being deported to a country he knows almost nothing about. “I never been to Mexico, I don’t know nobody there. I never grew up there.”

The Valdez family now lives in limbo, not knowing whether they will be deported to Mexico.

Juan and both parents await a hearing at immigration court in Boston. Though all three are charged with entering the country illegally, Mesa said Juan’s parents stand a good chance at receiving permission to stay.

Their 2-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen, suffers from lupus. A federal law states that if a citizen will suffer extreme hardship at the separation from parents or spouse, those relatives can be eligible for cancellation of removal.

But this doesn’t apply to siblings, and Juan now being a legal adult only complicates matters.

“Right now how the law’s set up, they don’t look at the hardship of the actual immigrant, the law is very blind to that,” Mesa said. “The law only cares about how the U.S. citizen is going be affected.”

Mesa said the only thing they can do is hope for the benevolence of an immigration judge, whose discretion will determine the fate of the Valdez family. “I think you have judges that are by the book, and you have compassionate judges.”

Simon Rios can be reached at news@nashuatelegraph.com.