Broken Taillight Leads to Undocumented Texan's Deportation

Gerardo Martinez with his granddaughters.
Gerardo Martinez with his granddaughters.
Courtesy of Ruth Lerma
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How Gerardo Martinez ended up deported to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico on Friday, begins with foot pain.

Martinez had made a doctor's appointment to get the injury checked out, and he was driving in Dickinson in Galveston County around noon March 10 when the flashing lights showed up in his rear-view mirror. He pulled over. The officer asked him, did he realize he was driving with a broken taillight?

But instead of writing the father of four a traffic ticket and sending him on his way, the Dickinson police officer arrested him for driving with an expired license and hauled him off to the Galveston County Jail. During questioning in the booking process, according to Sheriff Henry Trochesset, deputies asked Martinez where he was born and whether he had a social security number — normal procedure, Trochesset said.

Based on his answers, the Galveston County Sheriff's Office called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, alerting the agency that Martinez was likely in the country illegally. ICE asked that they hold Martinez in jail until they could pick him up. By Monday morning, the feds detained him, his foot still aching. By Friday — one week after he was pulled over — they deported him.

It did not matter that his attorney, Raed Gonzalez, had filed a stay of deportation, asking the feds to use prosecutorial discretion and choose not to deport him. He had not a single spot on his criminal record, at least before his arrest for the expired license. He never saw a judge.

“I am beyond rage,” Gonzalez said after learning of Martinez’s expedited deportation. “[The stay of deportation was ignored. If it was denied, I am yet to receive a response. It’s sad. The Trump administration is not deporting ‘bad hombres.’ They are deporting good hombres too.”

Martinez’s family pleaded for help and for their loved one’s release at a news conference hosted by the nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization FIEL.

They had not realized their loved one was already on a plane to Nuevo Laredo that very hour.

Martinez and his wife, Monica, came to the United States from Mexico in 1996 to give their children — two daughters — a better life. Years later, they gave birth to two American citizens, two more daughters, who are now nine and 12. Throughout his life, Martinez worked as a maintenance man, operating a printing press on the side and making business cards and fliers for small neighborhood business owners. His daughter Ruth, 26, said he had been hurt while working various times in the past — including severe burns — but rarely sought help or made complaints out of fear he might get deported.

“He brought us here young and tried to give us everything he could, and even at this age he never stops working for us, especially for his youngest daughters and for his grandchildren,” Ruth, who lives in Arizona with her husband, a National Guardsman, told us just hours before learning of her father’s deportation. “Everything [the police and ICE] did was in so many ways wrong. It's hard to see and to know this is happening, especially to my dad. He's been through so much already.”

Gonzalez said that, since Martinez was already once deported in 2004, he will be barred from returning to the United States for 10 to 20 years as a penalty. In 2004, he was captured right near the border after returning from a trip to visit his family in Mexico, Gonzalez said.

ICE did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.

Martinez with his daughters and granddaughters
Martinez with his daughters and granddaughters
Courtesy of Ruth Lerma

Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochessett said it is his county's policy to cooperate with ICE without any exceptions, no matter how minor the offense. It's a policy that would likely please Republican state legislators, who have proposed controversial “anti-sanctuary cities” legislation, which would penalize any law enforcement agency for creating a policy even discouraging officers from inquiring about someone's immigration status, or for using their discretion about whether to turn an inmate over to ICE.

“If we determine that another law enforcement agency, any agency, wants this individual and they send us the documentation, we will hold them,” Trochesset said. “I think the only difference is, for the past eight years, you haven't seen that much of an immigration movement to pick people up and put them through the process. Apparently that's what happened this time, and people are up in arms.”

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo both have policies to prevent officers from asking about immigration status, and both staunchly oppose the legislation that would likely make those policies illegal. They are among many Texas law enforcement leaders who fear that a crackdown on immigration by law enforcement would have a chilling effect in immigrant communities, making them fearful of reporting crimes or coming forward as victims or witnesses. Asked whether he was concerned that what happened to Martinez would create such fear within immigrant communities, Trochesset said: “I'm gonna look at this in a different manner: Is he in this country illegally? What part of illegal are we not looking at?”

As attorney Raed Gonzalez explained, being in the country illegally is a civil offense, not a criminal one — which is the basis of Sheriff Gonzalez and Chief Acevedo's policies ensuring that police officers are not performing the duties of immigration authorities. (Sheriff Gonzalez has indicated he will still hold inmates for ICE if ICE asks him to.)

Martinez's daughter Ruth said Friday she intended to fly back to Houston to visit her dad in the Houston ICE detention facility on Sunday. Explaining the situation to her two daughters, who are seven and eight, had been a struggle, she said. Despite the fact her daughters and their father are U.S. citizens and their mother is in the country legally through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the girls seemed to be voicing fears lately that their family was just as likely to be split apart.

“We were watching the news a while back, and they said, will they do that to us?" Ruth said. "They asked me, do they think we're all criminals?”

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