Members of Congress call on ICE to free detained construction workers
Unions rally in San Francisco on Tuesday for Hugo Mejia of San Rafael and Rodrigo Nunez of Hayward, construction workers who are being held under threat of deportation. (Photoscourtesy Jon Rodney)
It’s been more than one month since Bay Area construction workers Hugo Mejia and Rodrigo Nuñez were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement while reporting to a new project on the Travis Air Force Base. In their absence, community members, local politicians and activists have rallied on their behalf, building on a grassroots movement to bring them home.
Members of Congress this week gave their case new urgency with the issuance of a letter to San Francisco ICE Field Director David Jennings, calling on the agency to explore other avenues besides deportation.
“In March, the president told business leaders that his deportation plans were aimed at, ‘getting really bad dudes out of this country.’ ICE should act in accordance with these sentiments with regards to the Mejia and Nuñez families,” said the letter, which described both men as beloved members of their communities and devoted fathers. The letter, dated June 22, was signed by Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton; Ro Khanna, D-San Jose; Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto and Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo among others.
ICE officials placed both men in expedited deportation proceedings without a court hearing — known formally as “reinstatement” — because they each have old removal orders issued more than a decade ago after border agents caught them attempting to illegally cross the border. Neither of them has criminal records, according to their attorneys.
Their plight has drawn an unprecedented level of support from friends, neighbors and immigrant rights activists who say the men are being swept up in an illegal immigration crackdown that was supposed to focus on felons, not people whose only offense was entering the country illegally.
“These individuals under a prior administration wouldn’t have been a top priority for removal,” said Trina Realmuto, litigation director for the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
An ICE spokesman said the agency did not have additional comments or information to provide and issued the same statement it did several weeks ago, which says in part, “Mr. Meija-Murguia and Mr. Nunez-Garcia will remain in ICE custody pending court proceedings and it will be up to a judge with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to determine whether they will be subject to removal from the U.S.”
Realmuto said immigration officials “elected the harshest process” for Mejia and Nunez.
“These two gentlemen were fortuitous enough to get counsel who can help them fight this removal process,” she said. “But there are hundreds if not thousands of individuals who aren’t lucky enough to have access to counsel in this reinstatement process and folks who are whisked out of this country away from their families and friends based on the discretion of a low-level immigration officer.”
Attorneys with Centro Legal de la Raza, an Oakland nonprofit representing the men pro bono, submitted a request in May for them to receive an interview with an asylum officer regarding their fear of returning to Mexico.
Because they are in reinstatement proceedings, they would have to prove that they would be extremely likely to be persecuted upon their return in order to be granted protection from deportation. An asylum officer denied their claim and the men have requested a review of that decision by an immigration judge.
In Nuñez’s case, a judge this week sided with the asylum officer’s denial. His attorneys have filed a petition for review with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which automatically grants him a stay of removal as they await the decision. Mejia on Thursday had a hearing in front of a judge to review the asylum officer’s decision and is awaiting a response from a judge.
“There’s a lot going on in these cases and we really feel like once the 9th Circuit takes a look at what has happened in this case, that they will rule in our favor,” said Alison Pennington of the Centro Legal, one of the men’s attorneys.
“Not only do they have counsel, but they have such an outpouring of support for them, from congress people and from community members and that’s been fantastic and has definitely boosted their spirits while they’re sitting in detention.”