Deportation expected for St. Paul father of two who fled Guatemala as a teen
ST. PAUL — A St. Paul father with only driving violations on his record is expected to be deported soon to his native Guatemala.
Rudy Lopez Vasquez, 29, was placed in the custody of immigration officials within hours of his May 9 arrest in Coon Rapids for driving without a license.
He had been fined for the same offense at least twice in the four years prior. But under President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration, it no longer matters whether an undocumented person with a removal order is picked up for a serious crime, a minor one or, in some cases, no crime at all.
"There's no longer any kind of prioritization," said Malee Ketelsen-Renner, a Bloomington immigration lawyer who is familiar with Lopez Vasquez's case. "Now, everyone is just on a level playing field."
Lopez Vasquez's attorney, Michelle Rivero, said judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals have refused even to consider the facts of his case, which she said include substantial due process violations.
"It has been very hard for me to understand why this individual has not had an opportunity to present an asylum claim," she said.
According to Rivero, Lopez Vasquez has the scars to prove he was fleeing gang attacks in Guatemala when he was caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005.
The first mistake the government made was to process the 17-year-old as an adult, she said, rather than referring him to the refugee resettlement office.
Lopez Vasquez was placed into removal proceedings but was given the information in Spanish, which he did not understand as an illiterate speaker of the Mayan language Mam.
Failing to understand his situation, he neglected to provide an address where the government could send notice of a court hearing. The following year, unbeknownst to him, an immigration court in Texas tagged him with a removal order in absentia.
Lopez Vasquez went largely unnoticed in the decade that followed. He worked in landscaping while his wife stayed home with their children, now 2 and 6.
Driving violations in Minneapolis in 2013 cost him $200, and a St. Paul traffic stop last year cost another $128.
By the time he was stopped in Coon Rapids on May 9, the federal government was taking a tougher stance on undocumented immigrants, including those accused of minor crimes.
"He has been in the United States since 2005 and this is the first incident where a law enforcement encounter has resulted in immigration issues," Rivero said.
President Barack Obama, under fire for removing a record number of immigrants in 2013, announced in November 2014 that he was limiting deportations to only the most dangerous criminals.
Trump quickly reversed that practice, and administrative arrests shot up.
According to data provided to the Washington Post, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the five-state area that includes Minnesota made an average of 12 arrests per day in the first seven weeks of Trump's administration.
That's on par with their 2014 average but up from seven per day during the same time period in 2015 and 2016.
The figures included 160 arrests of noncriminals in Trump's first seven weeks, up from 19 and 35 during the same period the two years prior.
Ketelsen-Renner said immigration prosecutors also are no longer using their discretion to allow potential deportees to stay in the country.
In previous years, she said, clients sometimes could get a reprieve for humanitarian reasons. They might have been sole breadwinners with families, married to a U.S. citizen, had children with medical problems or faced dangerous conditions back home.
She's been especially troubled by the removal of Somali refugees who are being sent back to an unstable nation on the brink of famine.
"Just the fact that our country would just load up airplanes and send people off into those kinds of conditions is mind-blowing to me," Ketelsen-Renner said.
The staff at St. Paul's Maxfield Elementary, where Lopez Vasquez's son was in kindergarten last year, raised money to support the family. The teachers union this week encouraged members to lobby ICE to stay his removal, but to no avail.
Stephanie Umolac, a Maxfield teacher of English language learners, has been leading the efforts, assisting the family with donations and securing food and emergency cash benefits from Ramsey County.
After a final court hearing Wednesday went against Lopez Vasquez, she said, she slept late.
"I was like, 'There's nothing else we can do,' " she said.
Umolac said the kindergartner began acting out at school after his father's arrest. Some days, he would show up at school not having slept the night before.
The man's wife doesn't know what they will do next.
"I'm watching a family being torn apart, and in my head, I'm not even sure it's right," Umolac said. "I understand we have laws, but I also understand humanity."