Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas, a Worthington father who works at a hog farm, doesn’t have friends in high places. So when news came that he could be deported to Guatemala, he was stunned to learn his mayor, his Republican state representative and several members of Congress rallied to plead his case with immigration authorities.
Supporters say Gabriel-Tomas stands out for how deeply enmeshed he is in his southern Minnesota community after almost 25 years here: He owns a home, pays taxes, volunteers at church and raises four U.S. citizen children. His case also illustrates the Trump administration’s move away from broad Obama-era use of so-called “prosecutorial discretion,” which allows officials to give some immigrants a break by closing their deportation cases or holding off on enforcing final removal orders. Immigration officials said Gabriel-Tomas was granted multiple breaks over the years and failed to make a case he can remain legally.
This month, Gabriel-Tomas’ attorney made a last-ditch argument he should stay because he could qualify for a path to citizenship under a proposal in Congress to help people who came illegally as children. The offices of Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Rep. Tim Walz took an interest in the case.
“It’s an all-star lineup of elected officialdom that are trying to help,” said John Keller, executive director at the St. Paul-based Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
Gabriel-Tomas says he holds on to some hope but is preparing to leave: “I would be going to a country where I was born, but that’s new to me after all these years.”
The use of prosecutorial discretion to close deportation cases plummeted nationally in the first five months of the Trump administration, according to data from Syracuse University — from about 2,400 a month during early 2016 to fewer than 100 a month this year. The local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) says the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office has scaled back such reprieves. Supporters of the change have welcomed it as a return to more consistent enforcement of the country’s immigration laws.
Gabriel-Tomas was 16 when he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 1993 and asked for asylum, citing civil unrest in Guatemala. By the time his application and later an appeal were denied in 2002, he and his wife had two children and a third on the way. He ignored an order to leave.
He was spared deportation after he was caught working with a stranger’s Social Security card and convicted of misdemeanor identity theft and forgery. But a 2013 traffic stop put him back on immigration authorities’ radar. The next year, after an immigration judge refused to reopen his case and ICE denied a request to postpone his removal, he agreed to leave. He was in Dallas, about to get on a plane to Guatemala, when his Immigrant Law Center attorney, Kathy Klos, called and urged him to turn back.
Two weeks later, the Obama administration announced its decision to focus deportation efforts on felons, recent border crossers and national security threats. Citing limited resources, the administration encouraged ICE attorneys to exercise discretion in closing cases that fell outside those priorities. Critics, including the union representing ICE agents, decried this approach as too lax.
Gabriel-Tomas was allowed to stay temporarily.
The Trump administration has scrapped those narrower guidelines. ICE has made detaining people with final deportation orders a major focus, and attorneys and advocates locally say the agency now is much less willing to allow those who have had their day in court to remain. Misti Binsfeld, the chair of the local AILA chapter, says ICE is also reopening deportation cases it previously agreed to close.
For new cases, she said, “The message we are getting from ICE is, ‘Don’t even ask.’ ”
In spring, immigration officials told Gabriel-Tomas it was time to start preparing to leave. They were not swayed by two requests to stop his deportation, one based on unstable conditions in Guatemala and a more recent one arguing he would be covered by the DREAM Act of 2017, a bipartisan proposal that appears to be gaining traction in Congress.
The proposal is an attempt to help recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama deportation reprieve program that the government is phasing out. Gabriel-Tomas did not qualify for DACA because it covered only those who entered the country before age 16, but the proposed legislation raises that cutoff to 18.
ICE denied the more recent request on Monday. “Their response has been that they have been reasonable and have given Jacobo a lot of time,” said Klos. “And they have.”
Meanwhile, politicians and others, including Gabriel-Tomas’ priest and his longtime employer, rallied around him. Mike Kuhle, the mayor of Worthington, called several congressional offices and the head of the local ICE office to argue he should be allowed to stay. Kuhle says immigrant workers are needed to fill agricultural and other openings at local businesses. Worthington, a town of 13,000 in a county where Trump handily won last November, is more than 40 percent Latino.
“We want criminals off the streets; we want them sent back,” Kuhle said. “But to send this guy back is just asinine.”
Congressional office representatives spoke with ICE officials about the case on Tuesday. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, has urged his constituents to contact ICE on Gabriel-Tomas’ behalf.
ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said Wednesday that in a further exercise of discretion, the agency has not detained Gabriel-Tomas, instead giving him a chance to leave the United States.
Gabriel-Tomas says he plans to drive to Guatemala. His wife, a homemaker, and his children will stay put.
“It’s really sad to say goodbye to my family,” he said. “But I don’t want to make my children suffer by taking them to a poor and dangerous country.”