Melvindale immigration arrests threaten to split family

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A simple trip to the market last month turned into a nightmare for Fernando Lugo-Zarate and his wife, Maria Socorro-Lugo.

Lugo-Zarate, 48, and Socorro-Lugo, 44, who have lived in the U.S. for 25 years, were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents March 14 in front of their two children near their Melvindale home.

The couple were among hundreds of people caught up in a sweep of undocumented immigrants in Metro Detroit since last fall. They were freed after federal bond hearings and reunited April 12 but face the prospect of being deported from the country where they’ve spent most of their adult lives.

The couple acknowledge entering the country illegally from Mexico but neither has a criminal record in Wayne County or a felony record in Michigan.

Once agents removed the couple’s handcuffs, they gave the pair a letter dated March 14 ordering them to report to an immigration court on a date to be determined. A Border Patrol spokesman said he could not comment on the couple’s arrest, citing confidentiality policies.

“If he had committed a crime then fine, goodbye. This is a man who’s never been arrested in his life,” said Neal Brand, the couple’s attorney. “He’s never had handcuffs on him before and he’s never had his freedom restricted and all of a sudden his hands are behind his back and he’s not in charge of his life anymore.”

The Lugos aren’t alone in being targeted by federal immigration agents. From October through the beginning of January, 944 people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally were arrested in Metro Detroit, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while 17,415 were detained nationally during the same period.

Numbers for the first quarter of this year are not yet available.

“I thought right there I was going to be deported,” said Lugo-Zarate. “What was most worrisome to me was my family.”

The immigration crackdown, which has ramped up since President Donald Trump took office last year, has spread fear among Latinos in southwest Detroit and the Downriver suburbs.

“This story is common that ... Border Patrol pulls someone over,” said Diego Bonesatti, director of legal services for Michigan United, a community organization that advocates on behalf of undocumented immigrants and others seeking citizenship.

Bonesatti said it is unusual, however, to pick up both parents at the same time out of concern over who will care for the children.

“Historically, that’s been less common,” he said.

The Lugos’ attorney said he is trying to make the case that the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Laila, would be endangered if her parents are deported. Both the girl and her brother, David, 19, are U.S. citizens.

The couple admits they entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico in the mid-1990s, living first in Arizona and settling in Metro Detroit in 1997. They moved to Melvindale nine years later.

Before Trump took office, undocumented immigrants such as the Lugos who had jobs, obeyed the law and paid taxes were not threatened with being deported, Brand said.

“They have never had an immigration contact before this case,” he said. “They have no orders of removal.”

Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman based in Detroit, said the agency focuses on “removing public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens.” He added that in fiscal year 2017, 92 percent of all undocumented immigrants arrested by ICE had criminal convictions, pending criminal charges, were an immigration fugitive, or were an illegal re-entrant.

“However, ICE no longer exempts classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” Walls said in a statement. “ All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

Through an interpreter, the couple recounted their arrests, their reunion and their fears about the future in a tearful interview with The Detroit News.

Lugo-Zarate said he was on his way home from buying groceries when an unmarked vehicle with men wearing plainclothes stopped his car. The men, Border Patrol agents, arrested him, then took his wife into custody after she saw what was happening and ran out of their house.

She said she was asked “do you have papers” as she was handcuffed and placed into a white van with her husband.

As the couple’s daughter looked on in horror, Socorro-Lugo told the girl, “Don’t cry ... go on in the house.”

“I (thought) we were going to get deported,” Socorro-Lugo said.

Instead, Lugo-Zarate was sent to a detention center in Monroe and his wife was detained in a Battle Creek facility.

The couple are relieved to be together again but filled with anxiety about their legal status. Brand said their only hope is to convince a federal immigration judge they qualify for lawful permanent residency.

Brand said many undocumented immigrants like his clients are forced to wait until they are picked up by federal agents before they can begin the process of seeking citizenship.

Brand and Bonesatti say there are strict channels in which individuals from other countries can seek U.S. citizenship but those avenues are usually limited to those who applied before entering the country.

In the meantime, the Lugos’ attorney said he will apply for work permits and other important papers for the couple. He said families like the Lugos are often stifled in seeking citizenship because the costs of hiring immigration attorneys is costly. Legal fees can run as high as $25,000, sometimes even more, for an immigration case.

The stakes for the Lugos, Brand said, are incredibly high.

“If they lose the case, they will be given approximately 90 days to voluntarily leave the United States and leave their family and property behind.”

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