A U.S. immigration judge has halted deportation proceedings against a mentally disabled Hispanic man living in Pennsylvania whose case received media attention because of the circumstances surrounding his 2017 detention and interrogation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Immigration judge John Carle ordered the termination of removal proceedings against Guillermo Peralta Martinez because of concerns over the "reliability of the information" in the statements he made to ICE given his mental incapacity.
Specifically, Carle said the government could not provide "clear and convincing evidence" that Peralta was a Mexican national as asserted, because of "numerous inconsistencies" in the sworn statements contained in the standard form filed by ICE after an arrest. The judge, however, did allow the ICE account to be entered into the record.
The judge's ruling in late December brings an end to a case that began in February 2017 when Peralta, who has no criminal record, was detained by ICE agents in the small rural town of York Springs, Pennsylvania, where he lives. Peralta was going to work when agents stopped him while looking for an undocumented Hispanic man suspected of committing crimes. Peralta was questioned, then held for two months in a detention facility in nearby York until his neighbors collected enough money to post his $5,000 bail.
Since January 2017, when the Trump administration took office, ICE agents have stepped up enforcement efforts against foreigners living in the United States illegally.
According to data released by ICE in December, 159,000 undocumented immigrants were arrested during the 2018 fiscal year that ended September 30, an increase of 11 percent from the previous year. Just over 256,000 were deported, a 13 percent increase from fiscal year 2017. Even those who have no criminal records have been detained and deported, a policy change from the last years of the Obama administration, when those who had not committed serious crimes were released after being picked up.
Peralta's case drew media attention because of his mental impairment. VOA and the Philadelphia Inquirer both reported on Peralta's detention and subsequent court case as an example of ICE overreach in its enforcement policy.
Peralta, a stocky man who appears to be in his mid-30s, has no idea know how old he is, where he was born or how long he has lived in Pennsylvania.
Interviewed by VOA a few months after his release from jail, he spoke haltingly in Spanish, suffering from a speech impediment that made the few words and short sentences he uttered almost unintelligible. Asked to recall his arrest, he simply remembered that, "They took my keys and threw my lunch away."
An expert in forensic neuropsychology who later examined Peralta testified to Judge Carle's court that Peralta suffers from cognitive loss and mild-to-moderate mental retardation.
'Appropriate oversight' needed
Craig Shagin, an immigration lawyer in Pennsylvania who has been handling Peralta's case on a pro-bono basis, welcomed Carle's decision as "an appropriate act of justice" by the immigration court.
"The court did its job and Judge Carle came up with a good opinion," Shagin told VOA.
However, he expressed disappointment that there was "no judicial examination of ICE's practices" in this case, which he described as an example of overzealous action by ICE agents. "What people should be thinking about instead of calling for abolishing ICE is how to develop appropriate oversight of its activities."
Because of the partial U.S. government shutdown, ICE was unavailable for comment. In previous statements, ICE has dismissed criticism over its enforcement actions, saying they "are conducted with integrity and professionalism."
In his defense brief, Shagin pointed out that there was no evidence Peralta was doing anything suspicious when the agents detained him. "It is unlikely he would have been questioned regarding his citizenship but for Guillermo's Hispanic appearance," Shagin wrote.
As his case proceeded through the immigration court system, Guillermo Peralta continued living in his small basement apartment in York Springs, supporting himself by working at odd jobs in the region. There has been no immediate reaction to the court's ruling by neighbors who watch out for him.