Jose Velazquez Pedrote, like the other the estimated 3.6 million Dreamers living in the country, has spent almost his entire life in the United States. Like the majority of them, he’s from Mexico, though he hasn’t been there since he was 2 years old. When he was 23, Jose became a DACA recipient, and began to hope for a permanent future in Arizona.
But earlier this year, he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – and his sense of security shattered after he was put on track for possible deportation following his arrest for failing to pay a traffic ticket.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court began to hear his arguments in a case set to determine whether President Donald Trump can overturn former President Barack Obama's executive order creating DACA. The court’s decision could result in over 700,000 people losing their DACA status, and in theory, cause their deportation.
With the program’s fate in the balance, Jose's story reveals how in metro Phoenix, DACA recipients who come in contact with law enforcement already live with the threat of deportation.
A Deferred Dream
Pedrote learned he was undocumented while standing in front of a Marines recruiter, trying to enlist. The Carl Hayden Community High School student hadn’t told his mother his plan. But he was about to turn 18, and brimming with excitement and resolve to serve his country.
The recruiter had returned with a frown on his face. He’d run Pedrote's name, and the student didn’t have a Social Security number. With a creeping sense of fear, he called his mother.
Pedrote is now 30 and able to work legally under the DACA program, but that wasn't always the case. For the first few years of his adult life, he made his living standing outside Home Depots at 3 each morning, finding employment in the construction industry as a day laborer. Arizona, like most states, does not grant driver's licenses to people without legal status. But the jobs often required Pedrote to drive, so he drove anyway.
He was pulled over by a Phoenix police officer in 2011, a few months after his wife gave birth to their first child. As court records show, he got a ticket for driving without a license. He never paid it.
The following year, then-President Obama stood in the Rose Garden and prepared to make a public announcement. Pedrote’s mother, Alba, watched.
The plan announced by Obama, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, would allow hundreds of thousands of children who had been brought to the country at an early age, like Pedrote, to attain a renewable two-year period of deferred action for deportation. It also allowed this special class of recipients, who arrived before their 16th birthday and were under 31, to attain work permits.
The immigration policy was initiated by executive order rather than congressional law, a fact the country would become acutely aware of under Trump, who has since tried to end the program.
Under DACA, Pedrote could plan for his life again. He got a job as a roofer. He began saving for the business he’d wanted to start since high school. He rented a house, had another son. For the first time in years, he felt safe.
He had legal security, though not always serenity. He had a few bumps along the years including a divorce. Then, on January 8 of this year, Pedrote hopped into his car with a co-worker and began a short drive to a roofing project in Sedona. Pedrote said he must have been speeding – a highway patrol officer pulled them over, and he prepared for a minor ticket.
But after running his ID, the officer came back a told him there was a warrant for his arrest. It was for failing to appear in court for the ticket back in 2011.
He soon found himself booked into the Fourth Avenue Jail. ICE was waiting for him.
The ticket he received that day for “driving with license suspended/revoked/canceled" was later dismissed by the court.
Though Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone announced in February 2017, shortly after taking office, that county jails would no longer hold people for the federal immigration agency, as his predecessor, Joe Arpaio, had it doing, Penzone nevertheless has allowed ICE officers to remain in the Fourth Avenue Jail, where all people arrested in metro Phoenix are taken for initial booking. According to official Maricopa County Sheriff's Office narratives, everyone who comes into its custody, be it for an alleged violent assault or an unpaid parking ticket, is checked by an ICE detainer upon booking.
Since Penzone took office, ICE has flagged almost 10,000 people for deportation through MSCO’s jail system, according to Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, spokesperson for the immigration agency.
Pedrote, who has no adult criminal record, said that while in jail, an ICE agent checking his ID told him his Social Security number – which he had obtained with his DACA status — didn’t match the name on his driver’s license.
“I still don’t understand where the miscommunication was,” Pedrote told Phoenix New Times.
He reminded the agent he had a DACA work permit.
He said the agent told him he would be placed in ICE detention.
An MCSO spokesperson confirmed that ICE “expressed interest in this individual” during his booking process.
Pedrote called one person he knew could help — his mother. He told her he was in jail, and something had gone wrong – it seemed like ICE wanted to deport him.
Alba Pedrote, not the type to waste time, contacted Salvador Ongaro, an immigration lawyer who previously had helped the family.
Twenty-eight years before, Alba and Pedrote’s father had brought Jose and his younger sister to the United States from Mexico, she said. Now, she felt it was her responsibility to do something for her son.
There was no answer at the lawyer’s office – it was now after 5 p.m. – so Jose’s mother called his emergency hotline, waiting on hold until a representative said she’d relay Alba’s message as soon as Ongaro arrived at 9 a.m. the next morning. She resolved to arrive at his office at 7 a.m., just in case.
That morning, January 9, Pedrote appeared in court after spending the night in jail. His ticket for driving with a suspended license was dismissed, according to court records, and he was ordered to pay the fee for the 2011 ticket.
For a moment, it seemed like everything was fine — Pedrote was freed from his handcuffs, changed out of the orange jumpsuit he had been issued, and exited the jail in the previous day's clothes.
Two ICE agents awaited. Pedrote was put back in handcuffs, loaded into a van, and taken to ICE’s Phoenix field office, where people flagged for deportation in the Valley can be held for up to 12 hours before they must be transferred to long-term migrant detention center in the state.
Pedrote later described the drive as "brutal, in a psychological way.” He didn’t know where he was going. Perhaps he’d be taken straight to the border.
“Mentally, I’m already prepping for deportation, like okay, I won’t see my kids until they’re much older,” he said. But partly, Pedrote said he still felt numb. This wasn’t supposed to be happening to him. Since learning about DACA, he’d tried to do everything right – wasn’t he supposed to have protection?
Despite promised protected status, the law permits ICE to hold DACA recipients in detention for various reasons. However, the recipients cannot be deported until the Department of Homeland Security decides to remove their DACA status.
“Any contact with law enforcement, even if you didn’t do anything wrong, could result in being placed in removal proceedings," Katrina Eiland, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project, said. "And then, it’s up to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services whether to cancel your DACA.”
ICE may request that USCIS remove a person’s DACA status if they determine that the action is “in the interest of national security or public safety,” Pitts O’Keefe said.
According to Maria Upson, spokesperson for USCIS, the agency may grant removal if the DACA recipient committed a disqualifying criminal offense, or otherwise poses a threat to national security or public safety. Disqualifying criminal offenses include a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or more than two other misdemeanors, none of which Pedrote has. But enforcement has varied under different presidential administrations.
For example, a DUI has long been a trigger for deportation, but the Obama administration didn’t prioritize the crime as a deportable offense. That’s changed again under Trump.
Gilberto Olivas-Bejarano, who was brought to the United States from Mexico as a young child, was deported in 2017 after losing his DACA status for two past misdemeanor DUI charges. He now lives in Mexico, where he’s trying to learn Spanish, as National Public Radio reported earlier this year.
“Under the Obama administration, if you didn’t have any disqualifying offenses or anything really serious, even if you get arrested for something, it wasn’t going to lead to the termination of your DACA,” Eiland said. “That’s not necessarily the case anymore."
Pedrote has no criminal record as an adult.
ICE declined to comment on Pedrote’s specific case or status beyond describing him as a “native and citizen of Mexico,” and confirming he was in their custody on January 9.
New Times could not determine how many people previously held DACA status who were deported. USCIS, when asked this question, referred it back to ICE.
Detained and Frightened
Upon arriving at ICE’s Phoenix detention center, Pedrote asked to make a phone call. He said officers tried to dissuade him, informing him the phone was broken. He dialed anyway. It worked. He said his girlfriend told him what the family’s lawyer had learned a few minutes before: He was to going to Florence Correctional Center, a more-permanent detention center downstate.
“That was when I started freaking out,” he said.
He was now certain he’d be deported. Pedrote said he watched his cell fill with more and more men as the hours went by. He believed that when enough people arrived, they’d all be loaded into a van and taken to Florence. He tried imagining what work he’d do in Mexico. He wondered if his kids would visit him when they became adults. Pedrote said he did not believe their mother would allow the children to enter Mexico before then.
Meanwhile, Alba was preparing for a fight. She said their lawyer, Ongaro, had been making a series of calls to ICE. He told her they might have to prepare for a legal battle after the transfer to Florence, and noted that Pedrote's cash bond fee could be anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000.
“By that time I was really worried. We don’t have that kind of money,” Alba said, turning to Jose Pedrote during New Times' interview with them. “I almost felt you were already in Mexico. And you don’t know Mexico.”
After waiting five hours in the ICE detention center, a guard approached Pedrote’s cell.
“Where’s Jose Velazquez?” Pedrote recalled the man saying. “His attorney’s on the line.”
And then, a few minutes later, he opened the door and said: “We’re letting you go.”
Pedrote didn’t ask any questions. He walked outside to find his mother. Despite being undocumented herself, she’d hopped in her car and driven to the ICE center the moment she heard he was being released.
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The incident proved costly for the family – they said they had to pay Ongaro, the lawyer, around $700 for his services that day in January.
And Jose took up smoking after his experience. He said he just wanted an excuse to go outside after being detained, and that it's hard for him to be in enclosed spaces for too long.
“It changed the way I viewed my country, honestly,” he said. “I mean, at one point I was going to join the Marines for this country, that was how strong I felt about it. And that’s not the case anymore … My whole life I’ve been told I’m a 'productive citizen,' but to know all that hard work I put into this country could be so quickly stripped… it’s been difficult to comprehend."