WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump vowed that young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children wouldn’t be targeted for deportation. But immigrant advocates have warned for months that he wouldn’t keep that promise ― and Juan Manuel Montes, a 23-year-old with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections, claimed on Tuesday that his deportation was proof.
Montes and his lawyers are caught in a public, high-stakes fight with the Department of Homeland Security. Administration officials say they didn’t deport Montes in February in the way he claims ― but that they could have if they had wanted to.
“DACA enrollees are not being targeted,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday on Fox News. “I don’t know why this individual was picked up. [But] everybody in the country illegally is subject to being deported. So people come here and they stay here a few years and somehow, they think that they’re not subject to being deported. Well, they are.”
At stake is whether the Trump administration can credibly claim that it isn’t targeting DACA recipients, even as the president brags that he has unleashed immigration agents to make their own decisions about whom to remove from the country.
In the Montes dispute, both sides agree on two facts: that the 23-year-old was detained on Feb. 19 after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally and then deported and that he held a DACA work permit that was set to expire in January 2018.
But Montes and his attorneys claim he was first deported a day or two earlier. Montes says in a court filing that a Border Patrol agent approached him on the street when he was not carrying his identification and did not allow him to show his DACA work permit, speak to an attorney or go before a judge. Instead, Montes says the agent took him to the border and sent him into Mexico hours later, on Feb. 18.
DHS officials say they have no record of any of a deportation on that day, and that Montes was only deported once, on Feb. 20. They also say he never told them he was a DACA recipient.
Juan Manuel has been unequivocal in his assertion that he never voluntarily left the country while he had DACA. We believe him. Nora Preciado, one of the attorneys representing Montes
The difference is enormously important. DACA recipients are supposed to seek permission from the government before leaving the country. If Montes left the country voluntarily without that permission, as DHS has claimed, he would have violated his DACA status, which could have led to him losing his protections. But if Montes is telling the truth, his deportation is the first reported case of someone with active DACA status being expelled from the country.
“Juan Manuel has been unequivocal in his assertion that he never voluntarily left the country while he had DACA. We believe him,” Nora Preciado, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, which is representing Montes, said in a statement. The organization, along with other law firms, sued the government on Montes’ behalf to get information on his removal.
The Trump administration has maintained that it isn’t going after DACA recipients. But as administration officials have repeatedly emphasized, DACA isn’t a guarantee of safety from deportation.
“We can’t promise people who are here unlawfully that they’re not going to be deported,” Sessions said on Fox News.
Like President Barack Obama’s administration, Trump’s DHS has deported people after they lost their DACA status. This happened an average of seven times per month under Obama. But Trump deported 43 former DACA recipients during his first month in office alone, USA Today reported.
“A decision to grant deferred action may be revoked by DHS at any time, particularly in the case of someone who commits a crime or is otherwise found to pose a national security or public safety threat,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said Tuesday in an email. “Deferred action does not, in any way, prevent DHS from moving forward with execution of a removal order.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said the DHS says it deported Montes on Feb. 19. The department says it detained Montes on Feb. 19 and deported him on Feb. 20.