A case involving a man who was deported to Mexico despite having permission to be in the U.S. under a program that shields young immigrants has landed in the courtroom of a judge whose impartiality was questioned by Donald Trump during the presidential campaign because of his Mexican heritage.
U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel in San Diego was assigned the case of Juan Manuel Montes, 23, whose attorneys say could be the first known person deported by the Trump administration who had qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Montes sued Tuesday for access to records on his deportation.
The lawsuit came less than a month after Curiel approved a $25 million settlement in a case alleging the now-defunct Trump University misled customers. Trump repeatedly criticized the Indiana-born judge during the campaign, insinuating that his Mexican heritage exposed a bias in the case because of Trump's tough line on illegal immigration.
The Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday that Montes was entitled to be in the U.S. until early next year under DACA, reversing its position a day earlier that his status had expired in August 2015 and wasn't renewed.
The agency said Montes acknowledged under oath that he had entered the country illegally on Feb. 19, resulting in his loss of status because it was an admission that he had left without the required permission.
The case may help define Trump's approach to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was introduced in 2012 by President Barack Obama. Trump has kept it in place and made sympathetic remarks about its beneficiaries, angering some immigration hardliners.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that he didn't want to "rush to judgment" about Montes and referred questions to Homeland Security. He said the administration's enforcement priorities are people who committed crimes in the United States and pose a threat.
"I would respectfully suggest that, in this case, the facts are not completely out, so I would rather not jump to conclusions about what happened," he said.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican with a history of provocative remarks about immigrants, applauded Montes' removal in a tweet that linked to a story in USA Today, which first reported the case. Above a photo of a mug, he wrote, "First non-valedictorian DREAMer deported. Border Patrol, this one's for you."
Even after its latest statement, Homeland Security's account sharply differed from what Montes' attorneys say happened.
The attorneys said in the lawsuit filed in the Southern District of California that their client left the country Feb. 17 only because he was stopped by a law enforcement official and asked for identification while walking to a taxi stand in Calexico, California, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of San Diego. He was asked to sign documents without being given copies or an opportunity to see an immigration judge.
After getting assaulted in the Mexican border city of Mexicali, Montes returned to the United States two days later and turned himself over to authorities, according to the lawsuit. He was again asked to sign documents, not provided copies and returned to Mexico.
Homeland Security said Wednesday that the Border Patrol had no record of the initial encounter in Calexico and that Montes had left the United States on an unknown date. The Border Patrol arrested after him after he climbed over a border fence in the California border town of about 40,000 people.
The National Immigration Law Center, which represents Montes, stood by its account. Its lawsuit seeks records on why their client was deported, alleging that immigration officials violated the Freedom of Information Act for failure to respond to its request beyond acknowledging receipt.
"Juan Manuel has been unequivocal in his assertion that he never voluntarily left the country while he had DACA," said attorney Nora Preciado. "Rather than continue to provide half-truths and varying assertions, DHS should respond to our request for documentation. We will see them in court."
Montes, who came to the United States when he was 9, graduated from high school in 2013 and pursued a welding degree at community college, according to the lawsuit. He then worked two years picking crops in California and Arizona.
Montes' attorneys say their client qualified for DACA in 2014 and renewed his status for two years in 2016. He is currently in Mexico.
Homeland Security said Montes was convicted of shoplifting in July 2016. His lawyers acknowledged in the lawsuit that he had a misdemeanor on his record and "minor traffic offenses," none of which would have disqualified him from DACA.
The government has issued nearly 800,000 DACA permits since President Barack Obama introduced the program in 2012 and nearly 700,000 renewals.