YORK SPINGS, PENNSYLVANIA —
Guillermo Peralta Martinez does not know how old he is or where he was born or even the name of his mother. Mentally disabled, Peralta cannot say whether he is a legal resident of the U.S. A stocky man who looks like he is in his mid-30's, he suffers from a speech impediment that makes the few words and short sentences he utters in Spanish almost unintelligible.
Despite those challenges, he has made friends in York Springs, Pennsylvania, where some vouch that he has lived in the state since at least the late 1990s, and maybe longer.
Picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier this year, Peralta now faces deportation.
"The executive orders are clear, no populations are off the table," acting ICE director Tom Holman said in August. ICE told VOA that it does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. However, Peralta's lawyer says his case is an example of ICE overreach.
From roundup to legal limbo
ICE agents approached Peralta one morning in mid-February as he was getting ready to go to work in the south-central Pennsylvania town of York Springs. "They just grabbed me," he said in halting Spanish, his high-pitched voice quavering as he spoke. "They took my keys and threw my lunch away."
ICE says Peralta was arrested along with another individual at 5:30 in the morning, coming out of a building that was the address of an illegal alien with a criminal record whom agents were seeking.
On the standard form filed by ICE after arrests are made, form I-213, the agents stated that Peralta and the other man declared they were citizens and nationals of Mexico and were in the United States illegally. They were taken to a detention facility in the town of York, about 39 kilometers away. Neither man had criminal records.
"They took my fingerprints," Peralta said of his time in jail. "And they put handcuffs on." He said he was treated well while in the York detention facility, but also pointed to his arms where he said the orange prison clothes left rashes that itched. It was a confusing time. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me," he said.
'I want to stay here'
An arrest warrant dated Feb. 22, 2017, one day after Peralta was detained, states that Peralta made statements "voluntarily to an immigration officer that he lacks immigration status and as such is removable under U.S. immigration law."
The I-213 form also states that Peralta said his mother and father are Mexican citizens, that he has one child who lives in Florida, and that he has no medical conditions. It also lists his age at 45 at the time of his arrest.
Peralta's pro-bono lawyer, Craig Shagin, disputes the information in the I-213 form, saying ICE's case against his client is full of holes. Shagin points out Peralta is extremely disabled and hardly knows what he is saying. "When him I met in the York County prison I would ask him: 'Where do you live?' and he would say in Spanish 'Out there.' I would ask him his birth date and he would say: 'One and Two,'" Shagin recalled, speaking to VOA at his law firm's office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
"If you would ask him 'Were you born in Mexico?' 'Yes.' Were you born in Argentina?' 'Yes.' 'Were you born in Florida?' 'Yes.' Well, there's a problem there."
Shagin points to other discrepancies: The arrest warrant is dated one day after Peralta was detained; he is at least 10 years younger than stated by ICE, according to an affidavit by someone who knew him when he was young boy after he was abandoned by his parents; he has never fathered a child according to those who know him; and his arrest took place at a different address than where ICE said.
Witnesses say Peralta was arrested inside an apartment building while he was waiting for his ride to work.
"There is no evidence Peralta was doing anything suspicious," Shagin writes in his defense brief. "It is unlikely he would have been questioned regarding his citizenship but for Guillermo's Hispanic appearance."
Finally, Shagin argues, there is no proof Peralta was born outside the United States and concludes that Peralta's clear "cognitive impairment demonstrates that the respondent's own statements are potentially unreliable."
Peralta was freed on bail in late April after spending more than two months in jail. Marlen Carbajal, a former York Springs resident who has known him since 2011, said the small town's Hispanic community rallied in his support and came up with the $5,000 in bail money to free him.
"About a dozen people from town showed up for his bail hearing," Carbajal recalled, while sitting with Peralta in his tiny one-room basement apartment earlier this month. "His face lit up when he saw us, he was so happy."
Since his release, Peralta has returned to working odd jobs. "I want to stay here," he said, but added he is afraid of being picked up again.
ICE has declined comment on Peralta's case specifically, except to maintain that he entered the country illegally. But in a statement to VOA, the agency said, "ICE employees have been given the honor of a special public trust. In keeping with this trust, ICE's enforcement activities are conducted with integrity and professionalism."
Peralta's deportation case is one of many before the U.S. Department of Justice Immigration Court in Philadelphia. As of the end of May, Philadelphia had a backlog of 2,536 cases.
When Peralta and his lawyer appeared in court in August, ICE asked for more time to develop its case. That has since been extended to November 25.