A nationwide crackdown by immigration authorities has snared a New Paltz man who is facing deportation based on a 2010 misdemeanor marijuana conviction and a single missed court date. The detention and pending deportation of Joel Guerrero threatens to separate the 37-year-old native of the Dominican Republic from his American-born wife and unborn child.
Guerrero has been in a New Jersey immigration detention facility since February 28 when, accompanied by his wife Jessica, he traveled to Manhattan for a routine biannual check-in with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The couple have been married for a year. He works in construction and she’s an administrative assistant. Guerrero is a legal permanent resident who immigrated from the Dominican Republic as a teenager to live with family in Yonkers. In 2009 he was convicted of marijuana possession in North Carolina after, his wife says, police called to a house party discovered a marijuana plant in his residence. (Immigration authorities claim that the conviction was for felony possession with intent to sell. Jessica Guerrero said that she had confirmed with court officials in North Carolina that the conviction was on a misdemeanor charge.) The drug conviction put him on the radar of immigration authorities and, after he skipped a January 2010 immigration court hearing, his green card was revoked and a removal order issued.
With the removal order in place, Guerrero joined thousands of immigrants in a kind of legal limbo, subject to deportation at any time but allowed to remain in the country because he was not considered a threat to society. After a crackdown early in his administration earned former President Barrack Obama the title “Deporter in Chief” the administration during the past few years has shifted focus to pursuing and deporting immigrants with convictions for serious crimes or with suspected gang ties while allowing thousands like Guerrero with less serious convictions to stay.
Since the removal order was issued, Guerrero has met regularly with ICE officials. Jessica Guerrero said the meetings were routine and similar to probation appointments. Joel, she said, would be questioned about work, family and asked if he had had any contact with police. At the conclusion of each meeting, she said, he was allowed to go free with the understanding that if he stayed out of trouble his green card would eventually be restored.
“The ICE officer said not to worry because you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re not a high-risk person,” said Jessica Guerrero.
All that changed on February 28 when the couple traveled to lower Manhattan to meet with ICE officials. Jessica Guerrero, who is six months pregnant with couple’s first child, said that they were nervous about the appointment which was scheduled shortly after Homeland Security officials promulgated new guidelines based on an executive order by President Donald J. Trump which significantly expanded the agency’s mandate to deport “criminal aliens.’ Jessica Guerrero said that she accompanied her husband and brought along their marriage certificate to demonstrate Joel’s strengthening ties to the U.S. She said that her first inkling that the meeting would not be a routine check in came as she sat in a waiting room while her husband met with an immigration officer. About 45 minutes into the meeting she received a text from Joel reading; “It’s not looking good. I’m going to detention. They’re moving to deport me.” A short time later, Jessica was allowed into the back office to say goodbye to her husband. When she asked why he was being detained, she said, an ICE agent told her that the new administration had issued a directive to enforce all removal orders.
“It was like a bad dream,” said Jessica Guerrero. “I couldn’t believe it was happening, they literally ripped him out of my arms.”
Joel was shipped to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearney, New Jersey where he remains pending deportation. Jessica meanwhile returned to New Paltz to undertake a frantic effort to keep him here. When an ICE agent called to ask her to send Joel’s Dominican Republic passport, Jessica took her lawyer’s advice and refused, knowing it could speed up the deportation. The effort to halt the deportation process is complicated by the fact that, with a removal order already in place, nearly all avenues of relief have been cut off. Jessica Guerrero said that she’s pinned her hopes on two legal motions, one to temporarily stay the deportation and another to reconsider the removal order. On Monday, she received word that the stay had been denied.
Jessica Guerrero is also hoping that an outpouring of support from the community will sway immigration officials. Last week, just two days after he was detained, the New Paltz Town Board passed a resolution in support of Guerrero’s efforts to remain in the United States. Deputy Town Supervisor Dan Torres, who brought the Guerreros situation to the board’s attention, said that he had also reached out to regional representatives for U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Both offices, he said, had taken up the case and were in touch with immigration authorities.
“We’d like to keep them here,” said Torres. “We don’t want to see a family ripped apart over a misdemeanor and a flawed immigration system.”
While she hopes for the best, Jessica Guerrero is preparing for the worst. She says she’s prepared to follow her husband back to the Dominican Republic. While most of Joel Guerrero’s family is in the U.S. his father lives in the Dominican Republic and could help them settle in there. With a deportation on his record, she said, it is unlikely he will ever be allowed to return to the U.S. The removal order could also make it difficult for the couple to travel to or settle in a third country. While the case plays out, Jessica Guerrero said, she’s taken heart from the community support and offers of help from friends, neighbors, local politicians and total strangers.
“Between that and the media coverage I hope somebody can look at this for what it really is,” said Guerrero. “So we can get this resolved and he can come home.”