David Rodriguez and his wife were passing through customs at the Miami International Airport on their way back from an idyllic honeymoon in Belize when he was suddenly stopped and detained. This was unusual. Rodriguez, the head chef at Houston's popular Tout Suite cafe, was born in Mexico but has lived in America as a permanent resident since he was 12 years old. He had traveled out of the country many times without having any problems getting back in.
But when a Miami customs officer ran his name through the system that November day, Rodriguez was "red flagged" for what appeared to be a felony assault conviction from five years ago. For immigrants living in the United States, any crime of "moral turpitude" — a standard loosely defined as a crime involving deliberate violence and ill-intent — is a deportable offense. In the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security, Rodriguez's assault conviction was unquestionably a crime of moral turpitude.
After a long stay by Rodriguez in the airport's detention facility, customs officials confiscated his green card and released him with instructions to go to a privately owned detention center in Houston where he could retrieve it. Once Rodriguez voluntarily arrived at the Houston facility, he was promptly arrested and led back to the detention center's crowded cell block.
Rodriguez's detention is unique in that he does not fit the "deportable immigrant" stereotype. He's lived in America for 19 years and speaks impeccable English; he is a high school graduate and earned a college degree in culinary arts. He's held management positions in Houston's food industry for more than a decade, helped launch a chic shoe store downtown, and mentors young entrepreneurs. Now he faced the possibility of losing everything he had built.
But there was one gaping hole in the government's case to have Rodriguez removed: He had never actually been convicted of the crime for which he was detained.
In 2010, Rodriguez and Vanessa were returning to their apartment in Midtown when a man, who Rodriguez said appeared to be inebriated, approached the car and physically threatened his wife. Rodriguez grabbed a softball bat from the back of the car and struck the man with the bat before driving away. To this day, Rodriguez maintains that he acted in self-defense. He was charged with felony assault, but the charge was ultimately lowered to a misdemeanor (Rodriguez said in an interview that he chose to plead guilty to avoid dragging out the case and mounting legal fees).
All Rodriguez needed to get out of detention was a competent lawyer who could bring his case to the attention of the immigration judge and formally request that the case be dismissed. But Rodriguez was in detention for several weeks before his court date was set, and his original attorneys failed to expedite the judicial process. Additionally, because Rodriguez was detained while re-entering the country, he was technically considered an "arriving alien," which eliminated any possibility of getting out on bond.
Days morphed into weeks for Rodriguez in the detention center's windowless, wide-open concrete cell block. He said he shared the space with 40 other men, young and old, including one man who told Rodriguez that he had been there for 19 months. Some were there for serious crimes, and others were like David, but they were all there together, sleeping in bunks, sharing bathrooms and eating the same sub-par food — powdered potatoes, pasta and watery ramen noodles.
Thanksgiving came and went. Rodriguez had hoped to be out by Christmas — instead his Christmas dinner was a bologna sandwich in a plastic bag. By the time New Year's Day arrived, Rodriguez finally got a court date set, but it was still two weeks away.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez struggled to find the right attorney. Eventually he hired John Nechman, and when the Houston-based immigration lawyer reviewed the case, he was shocked that Rodriguez was still in detention despite the government's clear error: The misdemeanor crime Rodriguez was actually convicted of was not a crime of moral turpitude, so it was simply not a deportable offense.
Nechman immediately filed to have the case thrown out, and the immigration judge agreed. One week later, on January 21, after 78 days in detention, Rodriguez was finally released.
"It's infuriating, of course," Nechman said. "I would have challenged this from the first day if this case had been ours. David's former attorney apparently did not, and that, along with mistakes in interpretation by [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection] as to the ramifications of his assault charge mean he has lost several weeks of his life being detained unnecessarily."
Rodriguez said he is considering taking legal action, but mostly wants to work to change the immigration policy that ensnared him in the first place.
"It's only when you go into a situation like that that you realize how broken the system is," Rodriguez said in an interview at his home. "I've worked so hard to be somebody of good moral character, to be somebody who has helped a lot of people in this city. It's like, man, why am I working so hard if they still want me out of this country? This is not the way it should be."