(UPDATE October 25: Jose Segovia-Benitez has been released from jail and is in hiding in El Salvador. His lawyer, Roy Petty, believes publicity about his case helped him get out early. Two criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles are working to re-open his criminal cases. "Jose's in good spirits," Petty says. "He's complaining about the food in El Salvador, and he's re-learning Spanish.")
(UPDATE 7 p.m.: Jose Segovia-Benitez is currently in a jail in El Salvador and will be detained there for the next five days because of the deportation, according to his lawyer.)
An Iraq War veteran who was temporarily being held at Arizona's Florence Correctional Center awaiting a potential pardon from California's governor was unexpectedly deported overnight, according to his lawyer.
Texas attorney Roy Petty said he showed up at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Florence on Wednesday morning for a planned visit with his client, Jose Segovia-Benitez, to complete paperwork to re-open his client's deportation case. But even though the lawyer had been in touch with ICE officials about the visit for days, Segovia-Benitez was gone.
"Certainly, this is a surprise," Petty said. "ICE kept his deportation a secret. They kept it a secret from him, me, his other attorney, and they kept it a secret from his mother. It's not common practice. Generally, what ICE will do is they will notify the person so the person can make arrangements. They woke him up and put him on a plane."
A scheduled deportation for Segovia-Benitez, who had previously spent time in prison for a range of crimes, was halted in process on October 16, when he was pulled off a plane at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport and sent to Florence. Officials said they would hold him there temporarily while lawyers filed documents in the case and while California Governor Gavin Newsom considered granting the Long Beach resident a pardon.
Since Segovia-Benitez didn't have any attorneys in Arizona, it took until today for his legal counsel to arrive. By then, it was too late.
ICE's decision to move forward with the deportation isn't illegal. But it's a controversial move in a case that's drawn national attention and debate about whether it's right to deport a U.S. veteran who is suffering from the mental and physical consequences of combat, and who might not be safe in his home country.
Segovia-Benitez, 38, was born in El Salvador but moved to the United States when he was 3. Growing up in Long Beach, California, he became a permanent resident and served honorably for five years in the Marine Corps. He returned home from Iraq in 2004 with a traumatic brain injury from an IED explosion.
Upon his return, Petty says, Segovia-Benitez was never treated properly for the many physical and mental issues that resulted from his military service — his brain injury, a substance-use problem, and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He started getting into legal trouble. He was convicted for a DUI and a narcotics violation, and served time for more serious crimes, including injury to a spouse and assault with a deadly weapon.
After he finished his prison sentence, he was sent to an ICE processing center in California for nearly two years before a judge ordered his deportation in October 2018. Though activists have decried the practice for years, noncitizen veterans can legally be removed from the country if they commit certain crimes.
Last week, Segovia-Benitez's deportation seemed imminent. He had already filed an appeal and two requests for stays, all of which were denied. He was thankful when he was granted a temporary reprieve in Arizona, his lawyers said, because it would give him time to file documents and give Governor Newsom time to consider granting him a pardon. Now that he's been deported, there are still legal avenues to bring him back, but it will be more challenging, Petty said.
Newsom's office declined to comment on the case, but the governor has made headlines for offering clemency to other immigrants facing deportation. In the years before Newsom was elected, former California Governor Jerry Brown pardoned three deported veterans, giving them a pathway to citizenship back home.
More recently, deported veterans have gotten help from other state leaders. In August, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker pardoned Miguel Perez Jr., allowing him to gain citizenship in the U.S. after being deported to Mexico last year.
By now, Petty said, Segovia-Benitez is likely in El Salvador, a nation he doesn't remember. And he's not fluent in Spanish, the country's main language.
Petty said he still has hope that Newsom will grant Segovia-Benitez a pardon, and he also plans to file paperwork to reopen the deportation case to argue his client is subject to danger in his home country.
"Gangs target former U.S. military," Petty said. "They'll kidnap a person, they may hold a person for ransom, they may torture an individual."
Segovia-Benitez's tattoos — which include the U.S. Marine Corps insignia and the Statue of Liberty — could exacerbate that problem and make him a target.
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Petty said he has a paralegal in El Salvador who plans to meet Segovia-Benitez to finish paperwork needed to argue the case further.
"We certainly hope that ICE will correct this problem and allow him to come back to fight his case," Petty said. "What would certainly be horrible would be if he were kidnapped or killed in El Salvador before that."
Carlos Luna, president of the advocacy group Green Card Veterans, said news like this makes him feel like respect for veterans in America is conditional.
"We have a deep appreciation for veterans when they do good," he said, "yet we condemn them for having done the best they could with little to no resources."