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The mysterious case of deported DREAMer Juan Manuel Montes

What really happened on February 17? Hundreds of thousands of immigrants depend on the answer.

Protesters Demand Release Of Detained Immigrants Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez is 23 years old. He came to the United States when he was 9. He has a cognitive disability stemming from a childhood brain injury, and a handful of criminal convictions: one for shoplifting, and three for driving without a license.

He was granted protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program put into place by former President Barack Obama (which President Donald Trump threatened on the campaign trail to eliminate, but has thus far left in place).

And in February, he was picked up by Customs and Border Protection agents and swiftly deported to Mexico.

On these facts, everyone agrees. Then the story gets tricky.

Montes’s lawyers (with progressive activist groups and prominent Democrats rallying behind them) say that his story, broken by USA Today’s Alan Gomez and David Agren on Tuesday, is the first known case of the Trump administration deporting someone who was under active protection from DACA. The administration disagrees.

The question is whether Montes was picked up by Border Patrol and deported while waiting for a ride home on February 17 — something Montes and his lawyers allege, but DHS denies.

Who’s telling the truth? The answer couldn’t be more important to 750,000 immigrants who currently have DACA protections and have been living under a cloud of uncertainty since Trump took office — but who have seen aggressively ramped-up deportation efforts target others in their communities while mostly leaving them alone.

Under Trump and Secretary John Kelly, the Department of Homeland Security has been ambiguous at best, and inconsistent at worst, about who it’s deporting. It’s blamed activists for spreading undue fear in immigrant communities. But with Montes’s case, the fundamental integrity of Trump’s DHS is at stake.

Montes claims he was deported despite being one of the immigrants Trump has hinted are supposed to be safe

Here’s Montes’s account: On February 17, Montes had left his ID, as well as the papers confirming he had DACA protections through 2018, in the car of a friend. He was waiting for a ride by the side of the road in Calexico, California, after a date. CBP agents came and picked him up instead.

Montes and his lawyers claim the agents refused to allow Montes to go pick up his identification; instead, Montes told USA Today, "they detained me, they took me to a center, they asked me a lot of questions, and I signed a lot of papers.”

Here’s where it gets complicated: The Department of Homeland Security isn’t arguing that they deported Montes on February 17 because his DACA protections had expired. (DHS initially told reporters that Montes’s DACA protection had expired in 2015, but “after a thorough check,” a spokesperson told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York on Wednesday, “we saw that he had renewed.”) It’s arguing they never deported him on February 17 at all.

Trump Vows To Build Border Wall Between Mexico And The U.S. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security didn’t initially offer any details about Montes’s deportation to USA Today. But after the story came out, it claimed it had no records of that February 17 encounter whatsoever.

It does have a record, however, of Montes being apprehended “minutes” after climbing the US/Mexico border fence to get back into the US, and being deported upon admitting that he’d entered the US illegally.

Montes and his lawyers don’t deny that he climbed the border fence and got picked up. However, they claim, that only happened because he’d been sent back to Mexico by CBP to begin with — in an encounter that the Trump administration denies ever happened, and of which Montes and his lawyers have not presented any evidence beyond Montes’s own words.

If DHS is telling the truth that the February 17 encounter never happened, and the first time that CBP encountered Montes was when he had climbed the fence to get back in the US, Montes wasn’t protected by DACA at the time he was deported. Even though he theoretically had been granted protection until 2018, he would have violated the terms of his protection by leaving the country without getting permission, then reentering illegally.

In other words, whether Montes’s case spells danger for the other 750,000 DACA recipients in the US hinges on what really happened the night of the 17th.

The question of deporting “Dreamers” has become the focal point in a debate about who is at risk of deportation under Trump

There’s an easy way for DHS to show that Montes is lying — or, at least, to call his account into serious question. They could release his file with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (which processes DACA applications), and his Customs and Border Protection record (which would presumably show only one encounter, after Montes climbed the fence), to Montes’s lawyers.

But the lawyers requested those files last month, and DHS hasn’t yet granted them. The lawyers have resorted to a full lawsuit in federal court to get their client’s records.

If Montes and the lawyers are right, this would be the first case of someone being deported despite having been granted protection — something that the Trump administration isn’t legally prohibited from doing (it can revoke DACA at any time and for any reason), but that the administration’s decision to keep the program in effect, and several comments from Trump and Kelly showing “compassion” for people who came to the US as children, have strongly indicated it’s not going to do.

This is why Montes’s story — and previous cases of past and present DACA recipients getting picked up by immigration agents — have gotten so much media attention. The Trump administration has bragged that it’s more aggressive in immigration enforcement than President Obama was at the end of his second term. As a result, millions of unauthorized immigrants fear deportation as a daily threat in a way they hadn’t for the past few years.

But Kelly and DHS claim that the department is still being selective about who’s getting deported — and blame the media and immigration activists for spreading fear among immigrant communities.

Because DACA recipients already have protections, at least in theory, and because President Trump, Secretary Kelly, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have all indicated that DACA recipients aren’t being targeted for deportation, any sign that a DACA recipient has gotten picked up by immigration agents gets scrutinized as a potential smoking gun — a way to prove, once and for all, that the administration is in fact being indiscriminate in deporting unauthorized immigrants, and that the fear throughout immigrant communities is wholly justified.

Activists protest the detention of DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez
Activists protest the detention of DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez in February.
Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty / Erik MacGregor

Without the case files, though, it’s impossible to know which side is telling the truth — or if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (for example, Montes’s learning disability might have led him to sign a confession, or a waiver of legal protection, without understanding it). The only evidence we have, right now, is the copy of the DACA card that shows validity through 2018 — which doesn’t resolve the question at the heart of the case.

For both the administration and its critics, credibility is on the line

In a speech Tuesday at George Washington University, DHS Secretary Kelly launched a broadside attack on politicians, activists, and the press for criticizing agents’ actions and questioning their accounts.

“Members of Congress, the press, and other public officials frequently asked me about the morale problems the Department has experienced over the last few years,” Kelly said. “My response has simply been: When you discourage, when you disable, when you unjustly criticize and default to believing the initial reports as opposed to defaulting to believing the stories told by my professionals, what else do you expect?”

If DHS is telling the truth about Montes’s case, the outrage USA Today inspired is a prime example of “defaulting to believing the initial reports” — even though DHS was offered the opportunity to tell “the stories told by professionals” before the piece came out, and instead only gave its side of the story after the outrage had already mounted.

For months, the Trump administration has blamed unscrupulous activists and Democrats for spreading unfounded rumors about immigration enforcement and making it seem more aggressive than it really is. Officials have said that if everyone were honest about what immigration agents were and weren’t doing — if there weren’t rumors about ICE agents raiding churches or establishing deportation “checkpoints” — there wouldn’t be as much fear among immigrant communities.

If Montes isn’t telling the truth about the reason he was in Mexico on February 19, before climbing back into the US — if he was not, in fact, deported on February 17 after being picked up at random — then it’s proof that the Trump administration is right. Unscrupulous advocates would be (largely) responsible for spreading a panic among DACA recipients.

National Democrats, seizing on the story to accuse Trump of breaking a promise, would have put their desire to accuse the Trump administration of going after blameless “DREAMers” over their obligation to be honest with their constituents about the reality of current immigration policy.

Homeland Security Secretary Kelly Delivers Remarks On Threats To U.S. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But DHS’s own actions have encouraged some skepticism of its statements. The administration itself isn’t consistent in talking about who it’s deporting — with one breath it says it’s going after only people with criminal convictions (despite the fact that many of the highest-profile cases of deportations have been of people who don’t have criminal records but were ordered deported in the past), while with the next it says that anyone who’s in the country without papers should worry about deportation. Some officials say that the Trump administration is targeting “sanctuary” jurisdictions with federal immigration raids; some deny that.

And in the case of Daniel Ramirez, another DACA recipient picked up by Trump’s immigration agents, there’s some evidence that agents altered a written statement to make Ramirez appear like a gang member: a brief filed by Ramirez’s lawyers includes a statement in which some words have been partially erased, turning “I came in and the officer said that I have gang affiliation with gangs” into “I have gang affiliation with gangs.”

Perhaps most importantly, DHS’s story on Montes keeps changing. First, the administration said his DACA status had expired. Then it quietly admitted it had not.

But while the facts of Montes’s case continue to be litigated — in the court of public opinion, and in the actual courts — it's unlikely that most immigrants will ever learn about the messy details. The initial story has already spread far enough to reinforce the fear and uncertainty immigrants feel under Trump. Whether it's another case of the Trump administration sowing fear with its aggressive tactics, or of untruths and half-truths poisoning public opinion, is a key question for the administration and its critics — but either way, it's possible the damage has already been done.

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