It’s been three months since Crecensio Mendez Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant who’d been living in the United States for 12 years, was taken into custody. Despite a letter-writing campaign and calls for his release, he remains in detention in a jail in Versailles, Missouri.
Mendez has four kids. His youngest, Kevin, is taking his dad’s absence hard. For a while, he thought he was waiting for him to come home from work.
“He’s working really hard,” Kevin, who’s 6, said at a rally for his father last month. “I wish, I wish my dad’s here. That he’s coming home.”
Mendez, a Mexican immigrant, had been allowed to stay in the U.S. under an order of supervision. That’s where immigration authorities put your removal on hold and you’re required to check in with them periodically.
But when Mendez checked in with agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in February, they seized him. There was no explanation, no warning. And now, unless his appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia succeeds, he’ll be deported to his native Mexico.
Mendez’s partner Yasmin, the mother of his four children, isn’t sanguine about his prospects.
“I feel terrible, because he’s locked up,” she said a few weeks after he was detained, speaking in Spanish. “It’s like he’s a criminal, but he hasn’t done anything. He has everything in order, he has his license, his work permit… I feel like he’s as good as deported.”
Yasmin asked that her last name not be used because she, too, is undocumented. She hasn’t entirely given up; she said she can’t because her kids need their father.
“I still have hope, I hope people will hear us and help us and support us. I hope that he gets out — for my kids who are not well, my son is doing really bad, he asks for his dad, they want him back, they have trouble sleeping,” she said.
Nearly 4,300 new deportation proceedings are expected to be filed in Missouri in fiscal 2018. That’s up more than 1,300 from last year and about 1,600 the year before that, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University.
The stepped-up pace is part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Mendez is one of several undocumented immigrants who’ve lived here for years but only recently been picked up and targeted for removal by immigration agents.
There’s Syed Jamal, a longtime Lawrence resident and science teacher, picked up in front of his home. And there’s Leticia Stegall, the manager of a Kansas City bar, arrested while driving to the gym and deported to Mexico four days later.
Like them, Mendez’s detention came as a surprise. Over the years, he’d done construction and restaurant work, and paid his taxes. He was his family’s sole provider. Two of his children were born in the U.S. One has a bone disease, requiring periodic hospital checkups.
“This was highly unusual,” said Jessica Piedra, an immigration attorney who’s been helping on the case as a community organizer with Cosecha Kansas City.
“Generally, what happens in these situations is they either tell you ahead of time, you know, bring your things and prepare to leave, or at the check-in they will say, ‘OK, this time we want you to report a month from now again,’ with your belongings and having had time to prepare. And so this was shocking to all of us as far as a departure from the normal procedure.”
ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the agency still prioritizes undocumented immigrants with criminal records, but by executive order issued by President Trump, it’s no longer ignoring those without a criminal record.
Neudauer said a federal immigration judge ordered Mendez’s removal in 2010 after he failed to appear for a hearing. That made him an ICE fugitive. During his last check-in, Neudauer said, the agency placed him in custody so that ICE could carry out the 2010 order.
“Mendez-Ramirez remains in ICE custody pending disposition of his immigration case,” Neudauer said.
Back in 2011, ICE’s then director issued a memo urging “prosecutorial discretion” when dealing with undocumented residents with strong family and community ties. But that policy is no longer the rule, and now the pace of immigration prosecutions – after decreasing between 2013 and 2017 – is going back up.
The latest available data from the U.S. Justice Department shows that in March, the government reported 7,020 new immigration prosecutions, according to TRAC. That’s up nearly 24 percent over February and brings the total for the first six months of fiscal 2018 to 35,787.
If that pace keeps up, the annual total will come to 71,574, nearly 20 percent more than the year before.
Pastor Rick Behrens of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kansas, doesn’t know Mendez personally but showed up at the rally last month and wrote him a letter to show his support.
“There are communities around the country that are under attack,” Behrens said. “And that’s happening here in our community. And Crecensio is unfortunately a casualty of that assault on families.”
Since he was detained, family and friends say Mendez has struggled with depression and lost weight. They said he brightened after he received letters of support and got to see his family, if only briefly, through a glass partition. But his future, like that of so many others in a similar predicament, remains uncertain.
“I’m here because I want Crecensio to be back with his family,” Behrens said. “He’s a good man, working hard for his family and the community, and he doesn’t deserve to be in jail.”
Whether he deserves to or not, however, is no longer the question. It’s whether the crackdown on undocumented immigrants will continue, wreaking havoc on the lives of people who have put down roots in the community.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.
Andrea Tudhope is a reporter at KCUR 89.3. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.