Federal agents ignored President Trump's pledge to protect from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children by sending a young man back to his native Mexico, the first such documented case, a USA TODAY examination of the new administration's immigration policies shows.
After spending an evening with his girlfriend in Calexico, Calif., on Feb. 17, Juan Manuel Montes, 23, who has lived in the U.S. since age 9, grabbed a bite and was waiting for a ride when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer approached and started asking questions.
Montes was twice granted deportation protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Barack Obama and left intact by President Trump.
Montes had left his wallet in a friend's car, so he couldn't produce his ID or proof of his DACA status and was told by agents he couldn't retrieve them. Within three hours, he was back in Mexico, becoming the first undocumented immigrant with active DACA status deported by the Trump administration's stepped-up deportation policy.
"Some people told me that they were going to deport me; others said nothing would happen," Montes told USA TODAY in his aunt and uncle's home in western Mexico where he's been staying. "I thought that if I kept my nose clean nothing would happen." He asked that the exact location of their home be withheld.
Since taking office, Trump has followed through on his campaign pledge to crack down on illegal immigration by signing executive orders to step up enforcement against the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. The new policy calls for expanding the criteria for detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants and hiring thousands of new agents.
Yet Trump declined to revoke the DACA protections Obama had granted to more than 750,000 undocumented immigrants, repeatedly saying he had a soft spot for these young people who are leading productive lives and have few, if any, ties to the countries of their birth.
"They shouldn't be very worried," he told ABC News in January. "I do have a big heart."
Even so, DACA enrollees are being targeted by immigration authorities.At least 10 are in federal custody, according to United We Dream, an advocacy organization made up of DACA enrollees and other young immigrants.
The group's advocacy director, Greisa Martinez, who has DACA protection, said Montes' case is proof that people like herself are at risk despite what Trump said.
"We've seen Trump and (Department of Homeland Security Secretary) John Kelly say, 'The DACA program is alive and well.' We've seen (House Speaker) Paul Ryan look straight into the eyes of one of our members and say, 'You have nothing to worry about,'" she said. "And then this happens."
After USA TODAY published the story, the Department of Homeland Security — which had refused a request for comment for 24 hours — said it could not confirm details of Montes' deportation. Spokeswoman Jenny Burke said the department had no record of him renewing his DACA status after it expired in 2015, even though Montes' attorneys provided a copy of his work authorization card that showed his DACA status was valid through 2018.
A group of attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal court in California on Tuesday requesting that a judge force Customs and Border Protection to release details of the agent's encounter with Montes.
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, part of Montes' legal team, said it has requested information for months but has gotten no response.
"Even in this administration, because of Trump's comments about loving these people, the integrity of the government's promises are at stake," Hincapié said. "How does an immigrant family today know that this is not going to happen to them?"
The shy Montes was never a poster child for the DACA program. He wasn't his high school's valedictorian or a prominent advocate for fellow DREAMers.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child that left him with learning disabilities that meant a constant struggle to keep up in school and everyday conversations, according to Hincapié. Despite those challenges, he made it through special education courses and graduated high school in 2013. He started taking welding classes at a Southern California community college and paid for it by picking crops in California and Arizona.
He lived with his mother and a younger brother, who was born in the U.S. and, thus, is a citizen. His mother did not want to be named or reveal her immigration status.
Court records show he has four convictions: one for shoplifting in January 2016, and three for driving without a license, most recently three months ago.
Those convictions are not serious enough to disqualify him from DACA protections, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that approves DACA applications.
Montes received renewed DACA protections in January 2016, which keeps him enrolled through 2018. That is why Montes was confused when he was approached by the federal officer in February.
"They detained me, they took me to a center, they asked me a lot of questions, and I signed a lot of papers," he said.
Montes said he couldn't understand anything he was signing and was not given any copies. Officers walked him to the U.S.-Mexico border and released him into Mexicali.
There, he found a friend who put him up for the night. He called another friend, who drove across the border to return his wallet and bring fresh clothes. Then things got worse.
Montes said he was jumped from behind, mugged and beaten. At that point, he decided he needed to get back home. He saw some people using a rope to climb over a section of the border wall and joined them. He was quickly captured by federal agents, questioned again and deported again.
Burke, the DHS spokeswoman, said the department had no record of Montes being arrested and deported from California as he described. Instead, it only had a record of him being caught after climbing the wall on Feb. 19.
Last week, the department suspended publishing weekly reports on cities it accused of failing to cooperate with federal deportation efforts because it acknowledged the reports had been riddled with errors.
Today, Montes has reconnected with his estranged father and works in a gas station and a tortilla mill. But he's counting the days until he can return to the U.S. and continue building his life.
"There I worked and studied at the same time. I only had six more months to finish (my studies)," he said. "I liked it there more than here."
© 2017 USATODAY.COM