SAN DIEGO – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday reversed its position on the status of a man who has sued over his deportation to Mexico, acknowledging he was enrolled in a program to shield people who came to the country as young children.
Juan Manuel Montes, 23, was entitled to be in the United States until Jan. 25, 2018 under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to Homeland Security, which broke from its position a day earlier that his status expired in August 2015 and wasn’t renewed. But it said Montes acknowledged under oath that he entered the country illegally on Feb. 19, forcing him to lose status because it was an admission that he left without required permission.
Montes’ attorneys say their client is believed to be the first known DACA recipient to be deported by President Donald Trump. They say he qualified in 2014 and renewed his status for two years in 2016.
A lawsuit seeking records about Montes’ deportation was assigned to U.S. District Judge in San Diego, who last month approved an agreement for Trump to pay $25 million to settle cases alleging that his now-defunct Trump University misled customers. Trump repeatedly criticized the Indiana-born judge during the presidential campaign, insinuating that his Mexican heritage exposed a bias.
The case may define Trump’s approach to DACA, which was introduced in 2012 by President Barack Obama. Trump has kept it in place and made sympathetic remarks about its beneficiaries, upsetting some immigration hardliners.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that he didn’t want to “rush to judgment” about Montes and referred questions to Homeland Security. He said the administration’s enforcement priorities are people who committed crimes in the United States and pose a threat.
“I would respectfully suggest that, in this case, the facts are not completely out, so I would rather not jump to conclusions about what happened,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, applauded Montes’ removal in a tweet that linked to a story in USA Today, which first reported the case. Above a photo of a mug, he wrote, “First non-valedictorian DREAMer deported. Border Patrol, this one’s for you.”
First non-valedictorian DREAMer deported. Border Patrol, this one’s for you. https://t.co/56z1b8xrJ2 pic.twitter.com/iNjKd9FHtM
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) April 18, 2017
Even after its latest statement, Homeland Security’s account sharply differed from what Montes’ attorneys say happened.
DHS Statement on Former DACA Recipient Juan Manuel Montes- Bojorquez → https://t.co/PX9VgLtLjD
— Homeland Security (@DHSgov) April 19, 2017
The attorneys said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the Southern District of California that their client left the country Feb. 17 only because he was stopped by a law enforcement official and asked for identification while walking to a taxi stand in Calexico, California, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of San Diego. He was asked to sign documents without being given copies or an opportunity to see an immigration judge.
After getting assaulted in the Mexican border city of Mexicali, Montes returned to the United States two days later and turned himself over to authorities, according to the lawsuit. He was again asked to sign documents, not provided copies and returned to Mexico.
Homeland Security said Wednesday that the Border Patrol had no record of the initial encounter in Calexico and that Montes had left the United States “on an unknown date.” The Border Patrol arrested after him after he climbed over a border fence in the California border town of about 40,000 people.
The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), which represents Montes, stood by its account. Its lawsuit seeks records on why their client was deported, alleging that immigration officials violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for failure to respond to its request beyond acknowledging receipt.
“Juan Manuel has been unequivocal in his assertion that he never voluntarily left the country while he had DACA,” said attorney Nora Preciado. “We believe him … Rather than continue to provide half-truths and varying assertions, DHS should respond to our request for documentation. We will see them in court.”
Montes, who came to the United States when he was 9 years old, graduated high school in 2013 and pursued a welding degree at community college, according to the lawsuit. He then worked two years picking crops in California and Arizona. He is currently in Mexico.
Homeland Security said Montes was convicted of shoplifting in July 2016. His lawyers acknowledged in the lawsuit that he had a misdemeanor on his record and “minor traffic offenses,” none of which would have disqualified him from DACA.
The government has issued nearly 800,000 DACA permits since President Barack Obama introduced the program in 2012 and nearly 700,000 renewals.