It’s a double-edged sword,” Jorge Rafael Zaldivar Mendieta told his wife, Christina Zaldivar, before going into a routine Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-in on Nov. 13. If he went in, he was afraid they could detain him despite a pending challenge to his removal order. “But if I don’t go in there,” Christina remembers him saying, “that can hurt the only chance of me finally fixing my residency.”
Before the end of the day, Jorge was detained at the Aurora Contract Detention Center operated by the privately held company, The GEO Group, Inc.
Jorge and Christina, a U.S. citizen, have been married since 2005, after which they began the paperwork to get Jorge, who crossed the border without papers in 1997, permanent residency. In 2007, they went to their final appointment in Juarez, Mexico, but due to an administration error, Christina says, his residency was denied. At the time, she was pregnant with their fourth child, they had just bought a house and both of them were working full-time.
They returned to Colorado, distraught and unsure of what to do next. Then, only a few weeks after their daughter was born, Jorge was launched into removal proceedings due to Colorado’s now-repealed “show me your papers” law, which required local law enforcement to report anyone they suspected of being undocumented to ICE. He has no criminal record, Christina says.
The couple has spent more than 10 years and $200,000 fighting Jorge’s deportation, Christina says. They have five children, all U.S. citizens, and a grandson. For the kids, a life of ICE check-ins, court dates and uncertainty is all they’ve ever known. Boulder Weekly first wrote about Jorge and Christina at the end of October, as Christina was the main impetus behind AFSC’s Crossing South guide about deportation and returning to countries of origin. (See “In lieu of a just system,” News, Oct. 31).
ICE has broad authority to enforce detention and removal actions, even if people’s immigration cases are still making their way through the courts. Under the Trump administration, those who entered the country illegally are now a priority for deportation, a policy put in place through executive order in 2017. But the agency has broad discretion as well, and could allow Jorge to stay with his family until his case comes up for review, immigration advocates argue.
“ICE has needlessly detained yet another individual who is not a flight risk, not a danger to our community and who is just exercising their right to have a court review the legality of their deportation,” the family’s attorney, Laura Lichter from Lichter Immigration, said in a press release. “Just because they can deport him, doesn’t mean they should. There is no harm to letting Mr. Zaldivar remain with his family while his case makes its way through the review process.”
ICE did not respond to requests for comment.
Currently, Jorge is being held at the detention center as his lawyers were able to prevent his immediate deportation through a court order. Christina says that the family’s petition for his release until his case can be reviewed has so far gone unanswered.
On Sunday, Nov. 17, a group of family, friends and advocates gathered outside of the detention center for a vigil. When it came time for visiting hours, Christina took her kids and grandson inside to talk to their dad.
“At first they told us if you get here early enough, everybody can go in,” she says. But once they got there, the family was told only five people were allowed. So Christina decided their grandson, who is only three, would stay with her. After 10 minutes or so, another official came out and said five was too many, only four people could visit Jorge.
“It’s heartbreaking because who do you tell they’re not important enough to see him? As a mom, how do you tell them they can’t go back there?”
In the end, Christina’s oldest daughter offered to stay out and wait until next week, hoping that Jorge will still be in the U.S.
“My kids shouldn’t have to make these decisions,” Christina says through tears. “We don’t deserve this.”