Immigration agents detained Luis Candela-Gonzalez in January in front of an Arden Hills restaurant where he washes dishes.
Earlier that month, Candela-Gonzalez’s wife had appeared in media coverage of a state human rights complaint she filed against managers of her mobile home park. An agency document shows Immigration and Customs Enforcement first zeroed in on his spouse and then identified Candela-Gonzalez, a local immigrant advocate with a 2008 felony burglary conviction.
Now, his lawyer and supporters say that his arrest is part of what they see as a national push to target activists and others who criticize immigration enforcement in the media.
“It’s a tactic to oppress people and depoliticize them,” said Danielle Robinson Briand, Candela-Gonzalez’s attorney, who believes the agency targeted Candela-Gonzalez after looking into his wife because it is reluctant to target mothers of U.S. citizens who have no criminal convictions.
ICE declined to comment on the case. But the agency has strongly rejected accusations that it targets immigrants for their activism or public statements. Officials have said they remain focused on those with criminal records, prior deportations and final removal orders, though others in the United States illegally are not exempt from arrest and deportation.
ICE has recommended that Candela-Gonzalez not be released because of his involvement with an immigrant activist group, of a kind “known to provide shelter and safety to illegals from authorities.” Meanwhile, an online effort has raised more than $6,000 for his bond, which allows detainees to be released while they await hearings. An immigration judge will decide on Candela-Gonzalez’s release next week.
Arrest follows complaint
In the fall, Candela-Gonzalez’s wife, Sandra Gonzaga Perez, filed a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights saying a manager at New Brighton’s Oak Grove Mobile Home Park reported residents to ICE, leading to a string of immigration arrests last year — allegations that the park’s management has denied.
In January, Perez and other residents criticized stepped-up enforcement at a church vigil, covered by the Star Tribune and other media. Since then, two more residents, also of Mexican descent, have filed complaints against the park alleging discrimination based on national origin.
Candela-Gonzalez told his attorney that when ICE agents approached him, they asked, “Are you Sandra Gonzaga’s husband?” According to an ICE document shared by Briand, the agency zeroed in on Perez through something called an “open source lead.” Then, a record search identified Candela-Gonzalez as her husband.
Candela-Gonzalez has lived in the United States for almost 20 years after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to felony burglary of a vehicle in Kansas under a different name. He was working in Arden Hills using someone else’s Social Security number. The document notes that social media showed he is now active with an immigrant advocacy group and says that could make him a flight risk.
Candela-Gonzalez and Perez, who have three U.S. citizen daughters, have lived in New Brighton for almost 10 years. Activists says he has become a fixture of efforts to advocate for immigrants. Through the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, or MIRAC, Candela-Gonzalez lobbied for a proposal to grant driver’s licenses to immigrants without legal status. He also cooked chicken mole and other traditional Mexican dishes for events to raise money to bail people out of immigration detention or chip in for medical bills, said Brad Sigal, an advocate with MIRAC.
“Luis is always one of the first to volunteer to help in any way he can,” Sigal said.
‘Sense of paranoia’
In immigration court, Briand is arguing that Candela-Gonzalez is a candidate for cancellation of removal, which allows immigrants who have lived in the United States at least 10 years and who have U.S. citizen children or spouses to stay and work here without opening a path to legal status. She says the conviction complicates his application but believes her client has built a “strong record of rehabilitation” and community ties in the past decade.
Briand says his arrest amounts to retaliation. She says the “open source lead” in the ICE document is a reference to press coverage of Perez’s complaint and the vigil.
Meanwhile, supporters have rallied and raised money for Candela-Gonzalez. The effort got a major boost when a group of documentary filmmakers shot a video about the family that has garnered more than 25,000 views online.
In recent months, advocacy groups have contended that ICE has targeted prominent activists and immigrants who have disparaged the agency in the media in an effort to silence criticism. The agency has countered it does not retaliate and that those it has detained have fit its priorities. Here in Minnesota, some previously outspoken advocates have kept a much lower profile under the Trump administration and have refrained from sharing information on social media.
“There’s this sense of paranoia among activists now, to be honest,” Briand said.
Perez has taken leave from her job as a restaurant cook. Her daughters are taking turns staying home from school to be with her, in hopes that ICE agents won’t detain her as the sole caregiver for her children. Still, she says she does not regret that she filed her complaint and appeared in media coverage.
“We decided we couldn’t stay silent anymore,” she said.