A 20-year old Salinas man has become the local face of the nationwide immigration controversy.
He’s a DREAMer, brought to the United States as a child by his parents. He was supposed to be protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But because of a flaw in the system at the Monterey County Jail, he spent 42 days in federal custody and could be deported.
Juan Martinez, 20, had drugs in his car. That’s what got him arrested the evening he drove a friend to the Monterey County Jail.
Miguel Hernandez is Juan Martinez’s criminal lawyer. Sitting in his Salinas office, he leafs through his client’s file recounting what happened back in early March.
According to the arrest report, a deputy smelled marijuana coming from the car.
“Juan Manuel Martinez was sitting in the car and the officer told him to get out and so he searched the car and he found some marijuana and I think maybe some methamphetamine,” Hernandez says.
Hernandez got the charges reduced to trespassing. A judge ordered Martinez released. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he ended up in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“And I said, but wait a minute, he’s here under DACA, he’s registered under DACA,” says Hernandez.
Or, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA was established under the Obama administration. It offers some protections to undocumented immigrants brought over the border as children.
“So they shouldn’t be deporting him or arresting him because it’s not a charge like a violent crime, it’s not a firearms crime, it’s not a sexual crime,” Hernandez says. “These things are high on the list for deportation. It’s not one of those; it’s a simple trespass.”
It turns out Martinez was mistakenly flagged as a gang member. That’s because part of the jail intake process includes answering a question - are you or anyone in your family associated with a gang? Martinez answered yes, even though he’s not a gang member.
“That’s solely for housing purposes. We don’t want to house you with say an opposing gang member or where you’re going to get assaulted in jail because of that,” Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal says.
The Sheriff’s Office works with ICE to flag certain undocumented immigrants, like gang members and convicted felons. Sheriff Bernal says that question shouldn’t have been used to determine whether Martinez was a gang member.
“So we identified that flaw in the system. So this, this case won’t happen again in the future,” says Bernal.
From now on, the jail will refer to gang conviction history for the answer.
Even though the technicality was fixed, this case has local DREAMers, like Adriana, on edge.
“It makes me feel a little worried because it’s so close to home that any technicality can get you to face deportation. We have to be super careful when we drive, we have to be super careful when we go out. If we have to face police… that we are on our best behavior,” Adriana says.
Adriana is one of 880 DREAMer students at Hartnell Community College in Salinas. On campus, there’s a center called Mi Casa, where DREAMers can get support. When it opened a year ago, students were confident about their status and when they gave media interviews, had no problem giving their full names. That is different now. School advisors have told DREAMers to only give their first names.
“Even though I’m safe and we’re not criminals, we aren’t doing anything, we shouldn’t fear… but injustices get done every day,” Adriana says.
Adriana is hanging out with fellow DREAMer Zuleima inside the Mi Casa center. The oval table they’re sitting at takes up most of the room.
Zuleima tells me about a new anxiety she’s had - making sure she’s careful when driving. Recently a headlight on her car went out.
“So I was having that fear that if I got stopped that they would find an easy way for like hey, you know, oh maybe she’s a Dreamer, she’s doing bad. So I got that fixed,” says Zuleima.
And they would be easy to find. DACA recipients register with the federal government to get a social security number, which allows them to work. DACA also indefinitely defers their deportation. Adriana says if she lost that - “Where would I go? If I were to be deported, I wouldn’t have family in Mexico, I wouldn’t have anyone to really take care of me,” says Adriana.
As for fellow Dreamer Juan Martinez, he is facing deportation. After spending more than a month in an ICE detention center, he’s home awaiting his next hearing.
His immigration attorney, Blanca Zarazua, says she feels confident Martinez will not be deported. Her message to DREAMers is –
“Democracy is still alive, due process is still alive. So if something happens, research, get competent advice and don’t throw in the towel. There may be an opportunity to correct the errors that have occurred, just as in this case,” Zarazua says.
Zarazua says also, ICE mistakenly thought Martinez’s DACA card was expired. A hearing has not been set.