Labor and immigration activists rallied Tuesday at the Hennepin County Public Safety Center in support of a Twin Cities labor leader who faces deportation to Guatemala.
Luciano Mejia Morales, who was part of a recent campaign to unionize janitors, was detained by immigration authorities right after his release from Hennepin County jail on $3,000 bail following a Richfield traffic stop this month.
His supporters argue his Central American homeland is unsafe for a U.S. deportee, particularly one who has been active in labor organizing.
Morales had returned to Minnesota after a previous deportation to Guatemala — a federal felony — telling three brothers that gang members there had pressured him to join.
His supporters rallied Tuesday in front of the Hennepin County Public Safety Center to raise awareness about his case and decry the lack of protections for immigrants in a city that has at times billed itself as a sanctuary. An attorney for Morales is building a case that the U.S. government should grant him asylum.
"To fight for union and labor rights in Guatemala is practically a death sentence," said Gerardo Cajamarca, a speaker at Tuesday's event and a Colombian refugee who was granted asylum. "We are afraid that if Luciano is deported to Guatemala, he may be killed."
Deportations to countries grappling with political and social unrest are newly in the spotlight as the Trump administration has promised a harder line on illegal immigration. Local immigration advocates have also voiced alarm in recent months over stepped-up deportations to Somalia, arguing famine and threats from the terror group Al-Shabab have made that country too unsafe for deportees. Administration supporters say the United States can't indefinitely harbor people without legal status — particularly those who have had run-ins with the law — on the grounds that their homelands are in turmoil.
Poverty and gang violence in Central America have spurred a surge in arrivals at the U.S. border with Mexico. But Morales and his brothers arrived in Minnesota some 14 years ago, according to his older brother Miguel, who spoke at Tuesday's rally. They came to join an uncle, who has since been deported.
A janitor and activist with the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, Morales became active in a campaign to organize a retail janitors union in the Twin Cities, making it the first major metro area where such workers are unionized.
Last fall, more than 500 mostly minimum-wage big-box store janitors joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, which helped organize Tuesday's rally. In February, janitors won their first labor contract, which resulted in the mostly Latino immigrant workers sharing an additional $4.5 million in wages over three years.
Morales was deported in 2010 before he was able to resolve a pending DWI charge, and a judge issued a warrant for his arrest, immigration attorney Veronica Walther said. It is not clear whether that contributed to his June arrest for disobeying a traffic signal and driving without a license in Richfield. He was booked into Hennepin County jail.
Supporters say his brothers scrambled to come up with his bail — only to see him detained by immigration agents shortly after his release.
He is now in the Carver County jail, pending removal proceedings, ICE said in a statement. Protesters on Tuesday questioned that turn of events and the role of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Richard Stanek has said that though his office does not honor ICE requests to hold inmates for immigration agents, it will notify ICE when the subject of a request is about to be released. His office said it was simply a housing facility in the Morales case.