Local advocate for immigrants faces deportation

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH and ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 9, 2011 - 9:23 PM

Mariano Espinoza hasn't been hiding. But a recent arrest has him facing removal.

Mariano Perez Espinoza, now awaiting deportation, is the executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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A vocal and visible Twin Cities advocate for immigrant rights and immigration reform is himself facing deportation -- to the surprise of those who have worked with him for years.

Mariano Perez Espinoza, 41, executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, is in jail awaiting deportation for allegedly being in the country illegally after a previous deportation.

Espinoza, a native of Mexico, has advocated openly on immigration issues for years.

Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for the local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, on Wednesday confirmed that Espinoza is in custody. As of Wednesday afternoon, he had not been returned to Mexico.

"He's not leaving today," Neudauer said. "Mariano Espinoza is currently being held by ICE pending additional review of his case for violating a previous removal order. He had filed a request for a stay of removal with ICE, which was subsequently denied."

The news of the well-connected Espinoza's possible deportation surprised friends and colleagues.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, has known Espinoza for years. He described his friend as a self-taught organizer and inspirational leader.

He said the two worked together on a proposal for the Minnesota Dream Act, which would provide in-state tuition rates for high school students, regardless of their parents' immigration status.

"Mariano was the point person in charge of leading that effort and organizing students," Mariani said.

Until recently, Mariani did not know about his friend's immigration status. Then, two weeks ago, Espinoza didn't show up for a meeting to discuss creating a statewide series of leadership conferences of young Latinos. Mariani called the next day and learned that Espinoza was in custody and facing deportation.

He visited Espinoza a few days ago at the Ramsey County jail.

"He was very sad and emotional, but he was also trying to keep himself focused," Mariani said.

Not exactly hiding

Despite his illegal status, Espinoza hasn't kept a low profile. He's been a frequent speaker at rallies and meetings and has been quoted in news stories dealing with immigrant issues. In April 2004, he was featured in a Star Tribune story focusing on his transformation from immigrant to community organizer.

The Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network's website notes he was recently recognized by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota as one of its "25 on the rise."

The organization's mission is to "fix the broken immigration system in this country. We do this by empowering and engaging new Minnesotans and their allies through access to education, civic engagement and leadership development."

Espinoza's absence has not stopped the work.

"He's been an important part of the work of the Freedom Network for a long time, but Mariano is not the organization," said Jorge Saavedra, a Minneapolis attorney and a network spokesman. "What the organization hopes for is that this process can be resolved quickly and justly and that Mariano can return to his family."

That someone as visible as Espinoza can be here without documentation is a sign of the times, Mariani said.

"What I think is happening is that so many people live here undocumented. At some point you reach a tipping point where you are so much a part of society. Yeah, you can live in the underground, but ... what we're talking about is folks who are really becoming a part of the very visible broader community -- they own businesses, they own homes, they take their kids to school, they attend parent-teacher conferences and they're involved in local block clubs."

Trouble last summer

The most recent trouble for Espinoza apparently began last July. Several sources say he got into a dispute regarding a rental car at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

A spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office said an incident at the airport led to a felony warrant for Espinoza's arrest last month. Hennepin County jail records confirm that he was booked into the jail on Feb. 14. ICE regularly checks jail records in Hennepin and Ramsey counties for people in this country illegally who have been arrested for other alleged crimes. Espinoza's immigration status apparently was discovered.

Espinoza's attorney, John Keller, declined to comment on details of the case. He did say that he hopes Espinoza has a chance to present his case to an immigration court here.

Keller said the original deportation stemmed from Espinoza being the victim of fraud by a "notario," or a person who is not an attorney who gave him legal advice.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428 Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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