Jeff Taborda lives in a faded green trailer in an old, but neatly kept mobile home community in north Las Cruces. Taborda, 23, graduated in December from New Mexico State University with a degree in criminal justice, with ambitions to go into law enforcement and eventually join the FBI. He is lean and muscular, working out regularly with his younger brother, Steven. The home Taborda shares with his girlfriend is sparsely furnished, clean dishes in a rack in the sink.
“As soon as I eat, I do the dishes,” he told visitors on a recent 100-degree afternoon. “I don’t like when dried food is on the plate. It’s way easier to clean it right after.”
The mess Taborda’s family is in won’t be nearly as easy to clear up.
In the space of 10 minutes on May 9, Jeff and his mother were pulled over separately by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and detained. Less than a month later, on June 7, Francia Elena Benitez-Castaño was deported to Colombia, a country she and her husband left in the late 1990s to escape violence. It could be more than a decade before he sees her again because of rules governing applications for re-entry into the country.
Taborda’s situation is less dire. Because he was brought to the United States as a child, he was released after three days of detention and has applied to a federal program — Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals — that would allow him to stay in the U.S. and is awaiting word to see if he will be accepted. On Friday, President Trump said he would not eliminate protections for so-called ‘Dreamers’ like Taborda but he had not decided the long-term fate of the program.
Jeff Taborda and his parents are part of a growing number of undocumented immigrants being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement under recent guideline changes from the Trump administration.
“Right now we are seeing people who are actually longtime contributors to the communities that they live in and have committed no crimes to justify their deportation or their families’ separation,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights based in Las Cruces.
Memos issued by Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Feb. 20 give direction to ICE, Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that implement President Trump’s executive orders on immigration enforcement.
The memos countermand Obama administration policies that placed enforcement priorities on undocumented immigrants with serious criminal violations and newer arrivals. The memos also encourage detaining immigrants and asylum seekers rather than allowing them to remain in the community while their cases are considered. Benitez-Castaño’s case highlights another development: The U.S.’s move to deport parents of U.S. citizens such as Steven Taborda, Jeff’s younger brother.
In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order that would have removed the threat of deportation for millions of people like Benitez-Castaño and allowed them to receive work permits. However, several states challenged the program and a federal judge in Texas stopped the program while it wended its way through the courts.
“We have a new set of priorities outlined by the administration,” said Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for ICE in El Paso.
According to figures provided by ICE, in the El Paso area of responsibility, which includes New Mexico, there have been 570 arrests between Jan. 20 through April 29. That compares with 498 total for all of fiscal year 2016. The percentage of non-criminal arrests has also increased. In 2016, about 29 percent of those arrested were non-criminals. In the first part of 2017, non-criminals accounted for more than 47 percent of arrests.
“Basically what Trump has done is make everyone eligible for deportation,” Gaubeca said.
Coming to America to escape violence
The Taborda family came to the United States from Colombia on tourist visas in 1998. Francia Elena Benitez-Castaño and her husband were professionals in Colombia, she an accountant and he a Spanish professor. They brought their 4-year-old son Jefferson to Miami to escape drug-related violence, Taborda said. The family moved briefly to El Paso, applied for asylum and settled in Las Cruces, where their son Steven was born in January 2002. In November of that year, their final appeal for asylum was denied. They waited for a written notice to leave the country.
It never came, they said. And, they stayed.
Benitez-Castaño never told her son he was not a legal resident. Taborda had a Social Security number issued to him while his family was applying for asylum. He went to local public schools, got a New Mexico driver’s license, which until 2016 were issued to both legal and undocumented residents, and he was accepted to NMSU, which has a policy of not asking for immigration status. Taborda learned he was undocumented on May 9, 2017 — the day he was pulled over by an ICE SUV and detained near his home.
That morning was a normal day for the Taborda family. Jeff’s father had left around 7:30 a.m. to take Steven Taborda to the hospital for therapy. The family asked that the father’s name not be used, and his whereabouts are unclear. Benitez-Castaño left about 8 a.m. for work. She was pulled over and detained. About 10 minutes later Jeff Taborda left his home to take his girlfriend to Doña Ana Community College and was stopped.
This video, made in collaboration with Borderzine, was produced before Jeff Taborda learned his mother was deported.
Taborda is unemotional as he describes the day that changed his life forever. But he shares this about his girlfriend’s reaction to his detention and his current uncertain immigration status: “It hurt her a lot. Anytime she heard about the situation, she cried.”
The chaos and separation the Taborda family is experiencing is not an isolated case. Immigrant rights groups, the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, immigration lawyers, the immigration courts and detention centers are seeing the effects of wider enforcement.
Antonio Williams, an immigration attorney in El Paso for the past five years, explained that there are two types of immigration courts, one for those who are detained and one for those who are released. Until recently, the non-detained court had a larger caseload. That has shifted as the new administration put an emphasis on detaining those undergoing removal proceedings.
“Because the Trump administration has made a decision to detain as many people as possible, he’s had to increase the number of detained immigration judges,” Williams said. “They already have a more demanding guideline to have a resolution for cases within three months … which almost never happens.”
In this region, the number of judges ruling on those cases has been doubled. Four judges have been added at the Chaparral processing center to the four in El Paso, Williams said. And it’s still not enough, he said. The administration has authorized a judge in Denver to hear El Paso cases, with some detainees being housed in a jail in Cibola County, New Mexico. According to Zamarripa, the ICE spokeswoman, the average daily population at El Paso Processing Center is 791, Otero County Processing Center holds 554, with 165 daily in Cibola County Detention Center.
“Somehow within that triangle, we’re still supposed to provide the representation necessary to assist them,” Williams said. Add to that the frequent need for interpreters who need to translate for all parties via telephone line by line and “it frustrates, in my opinion, due process.”
Immigrant rights groups, advocates respond to changes
The changing focus in immigration enforcement leaves advocacy groups and the Mexican Consulate in El Paso with few options other than to help undocumented immigrants know their rights when confronted by ICE and Border Patrol agents, and to help make arrangements for their U.S. citizen children.
Since the February enforcement memos were issued, the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights has seen a four-fold increase in the request for “Know Your Rights” workshops, Gaubeca said. The community activist group NM Comunidades en Accion y de Fé (NM CAFé) is setting up seminars on powers of attorney to help families make plans for their children in the event they are detained and deported. And the Mexican Consulate in El Paso in May opened a legal advice window for Mexican nationals and scheduled four packed seminars on applying to regularize their immigration status.
Casey Anthony Williams, an immigration attorney, on the new era of immigration detentions. This video was produced in collaboration with Borderzine.
“At the very beginning, if you can show you have children born in the United States, that’s enough proof to stop your removal,” said Deputy Consul General Ricardo Hernandez. “Now, no. Not at all. If you can’t take care of your children, they’re going into child protective services and you’re going back to your home country.”
The Tabordas had the foresight to make custody plans for 15-year-old Steven Taborda. When Benitez-Castaño was detained, most of the preparation was done to give power of attorney to a family friend to become Steven’s guardian. His father signed the paperwork.
Neither he, his younger brother Steven nor his father were able to tell Benitez-Castaño goodbye in person.
Taborda heard from his mother at 5 p.m. the day she was deported — she called from the Dallas airport and told him she was waiting for her flight to Colombia. She had no clothes or money, and had been given little notice to notify her family to pick her up at the airport in Bogota.
Despite the heavy odds, Taborda is still fighting to reunite his family. There was a Mass and rally Saturday for Benitez-Castaño at Holy Cross Retreat Center in Las Cruces, attended by Bishop Oscar Cantu and immigration advocates.
Taborda said he understands the immigration laws and that his parents were in violation of them when they overstayed their visas, but he wishes they’d “just take into consideration the person they are trying to deport. They’re saying one thing in Washington and they’re doing another. They’re telling people they’re not going after low priorities, that they’re going after criminals. That’s not the pattern we’re seeing. They’re treating non-criminals just as bad as criminals.”