As the United States’ immigration policies came to a head, Vancouver’s Ramon Flores-Garcia sat in a detention center — 1,600 miles away in New Mexico — on the last leg of a six-month stint in custody with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, waiting to be deported.
His family says he is now back in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s the longest he’s been away from his family, and they have no idea when they will see him again.
Flores, 43, was separated, unexpectedly, from his wife of 14 years and seven children, ranging in age from grade school to young adulthood.
“My dad has done nothing wrong. He pays taxes, works hard. We are just like other families, struggling,” said his daughter, 20-year-old Leslie Flores. “It’s ridiculous to take out the (immigrants) who are actually helping America. They don’t care about the families they have here, and they don’t care about separating them.”
Ramon Flores — who has lived in the U.S. for about 20 years — was detained by ICE agents while working in Everett on Valentine’s Day. He was stopped a few blocks away from the Motel 6 where he had been staying. His family was expecting him home that evening for dinner.
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Instead, his wife, Enedis, 51, received his devastating call from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Feeling powerless, she wept.
Enedis Flores says her husband is a good man. He has no criminal history, operated his own merchandise distribution business — selling Mexican goods — provided for his family and paid his taxes.
“He’s been here for so long, and now they decide to take him?” Leslie Flores translated for her mother, who is Cuban-American. “He was trying to do the best he can.”
‘No legal basis’
The family doesn’t know why ICE agents targeted Ramon Flores but suspect a competing business may have reported him.
However, The Phoenix New Times first reported on Wednesday that at least two Motel 6 locations in Arizona were giving ICE information that led to guests being detained and deported. And a Mesa, Ariz., immigration attorney, Juan Rocha, said that an employee at a Motel 6 in Washington told him of the same practice here, according to The New York Times.
Rocha’s office told The Columbian they did not know which location the Washington Motel 6 employee was calling about. The employee wished to remain anonymous.
Following the New Times’ story, Motel 6 released a statement on social media saying the practice was “implemented at the local level without the knowledge of senior management.”
“When we became aware of it last week, it was discontinued,” the statement read.
After coming under fire, Motel 6 apologized and said it would be reviewing its current practices. In the meantime, it instructed its 1,400 locations nationwide not to provide daily guest lists to ICE.
When asked if Ramon Flores was reported by the Motel 6 he was staying at, ICE declined to disclose how it received its information, citing “operational security” reasons.
“The agency receives viable enforcement tips from a host of sources, including other law enforcement agencies, relevant databases, crime victims and the general public via the agency’s tip line and online tip form,” Lori K. Haley, an ICE spokeswoman for the Western Region, wrote in an email.
“The agency’s immigration enforcement actions are targeted and lead driven, prioritizing individuals who pose a risk to our communities,” Haley’s email continued. “It’s worth noting that hotels and motels have frequently been exploited by criminal organizations engaged in highly dangerous, illegal enterprises, including human-trafficking and human-smuggling.”
But Ramon Flores has no prior criminal history here and, according to Haley, he was detained because he had been previously deported in 1998 and illegally re-entered the U.S. His case underwent further review by an immigration judge with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration who found Flores had “no legal basis to remain in the United States,” Haley wrote in an email.
ICE focuses enforcement operations on people who pose a threat to national security, public safety or border security, Haley said. Enforcement operations comply with federal law and agency policy; however, ICE doesn’t exempt categories of removable undocumented immigrants.
“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,” Haley wrote.
Ramon Flores first tried to enter the U.S. in 1995 but was caught crossing the border, Enedis Flores said. He tried a second time with success but was deported in 1998 after returning from a visit with his mother in Puerto Vallarta. Determined to return to his life here, he again snuck across the border.
“He wanted a better life,” Enedis Flores said.
She met her husband at their workplace in 2000, and they married about three years later. Enedis Flores, who said she has legal standing to live in the U.S., wanted her husband to also obtain legal status.
“He was afraid they would take him. Once he had a family, he didn’t really trust (the system),” she said. With his previous deportation history, he worried he wouldn’t be given a chance to stay.
The Floreses moved to Vancouver from the Portland area in 2009 and started their own business last year.
Now, Enedis Flores is left trying to run the business, hold down the household, pay the bills and help her husband. “It’s really crazy,” she said.
Leslie Flores said her younger siblings are having a difficult time understanding what’s going on, and all of the children have reacted differently to the news. She said she is full of rage and sadness.
“This whole situation has been really difficult on everybody,” she said. “We don’t know when he can come back.”
One of her younger brothers has gotten into fights at school after being teased about his father. Some other students called him a “filthy immigrant,” Leslie Flores said.
“No child should have to deal with any of this,” she said. “My mom is stressed and trying to stay strong for us, and we’re all just trying to get by.”
While her dad was still in ICE custody, the family spent about $14,500 on his defense but couldn’t afford to pay their lawyer any more. Posting bail was also out of reach.
They were told they have few options.
Few avenues exist that allow immigrants to enter and live in the U.S. legally, Vancouver immigration attorney Mercedes Riggs said.
There are family- and employer-sponsored U.S. visas, but both options require different wait and processing times — anywhere from six months to a couple years, Riggs said. To be eligible for an immigrant visa, the sponsor must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident — either a spouse, child, parent or sibling — or prospective employer. However, some employment-based visas only provide temporary residency, she said.
Immigrants can apply for an annual Diversity Visa, also known as the green card lottery, but the countries that qualify vary each year. Certain countries, such as Mexico, have not been eligible for the past couple of years, Riggs explained, and the number of visas handed out is limited.
There are humanitarian-based visas for crime or trafficking victims, refugees or people seeking political asylum. But again, the amount issued is limited.
Immigrants can apply for legal status if they marry a U.S. citizen, but it typically does not work if that immigrant is already in the U.S. illegally.
The majority of immigrants come to the U.S. on family- or employment-based visas, Riggs said.
Permanent residency is not the same as citizenship, she added. Permanent residents can travel outside the U.S. for no more than six months at a time, or risk losing residency. They are also subject to deportation if they commit certain crimes, Riggs said. They are not eligible to vote or receive government benefits within the first five years of living in the U.S.
In the first two quarters of fiscal 2017, from Oct. 1 to March 30, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued 289,603 green cards to new arrivals and 270,547 to immigrants already living here on temporary visas, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security data.
“You might be lucky enough and come on a student visa and get educated here but that’s it,” Riggs said. If that immigrant is not taking classes, they must return to their country.
If an immigrant overstays their visa by more than six months, they can be banned from the country.
People who overstay their visa for more than six months but less than a year face a three-year ban before they can legally re-enter the U.S. Anything longer results in a 10-year ban.
The Flores family is all too familiar with the difficult immigration process.
Leslie Flores said her father’s attorney encouraged her to join the military so that he can apply for the Parole in Place program. The program allows certain undocumented family members of active military personnel to apply for a green card, without having to leave the country.
“I’m only doing it to help my dad,” she said of joining the National Guard. She’s been under immense pressure, she said, to try to meet the requirements to join and has already met with recruiters.
However, Riggs said it’s unlikely the PIP program is still a viable option, because Ramon Flores was already deported.
The family last saw Ramon Flores about a month ago, just days before he was deported. It was their first and last contact visit since he was in custody.
“He was just sad,” Leslie Flores said.
Since then, the family has been texting and calling Ramon Flores. He started working in his parents’ bakery, Leslie Flores said, to send money to his family and help with the business.
She argues that the U.S. should make it easier for immigrants to obtain residency. The current process, she said, is complicated, costly and time-consuming.
The Floreses say they want people to be aware of who some of these undocumented immigrants are, their challenges and what happens when their families are torn apart.
“Everyone says immigrants are here to take jobs and bring drugs. They don’t even give us a chance,” Leslie Flores said. “We take the jobs that most Americans don’t want or won’t do.”