A church youth leader, baker, soccer player and Salvadoran Long Islander was deported last week after he was arrested weeks earlier at a traffic stop for allegedly failing to signal in Roosevelt, the result of “egregious” actions from both local and federal law enforcement.
The Hempstead man, 30-year-old Denis Guerra Guerra, “lived his life between the soccer field and church” said his representing counsel, Elise Damas, Esq.
She explained that Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) officers stopped him on Aug. 7. Being undocumented, Guerra did not have a license and instead presented his passport. Running his name, police saw that while Guerra had no prior criminal history, he did have an existing order of removal from 2006.
He was then turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“They arrested Denis, obviously for the sole purpose of turning him over to ICE because this is an offense where normally a desk appearance would have been issued, it comes with $188 fine, and the person is sent on their merry way,” said Damas, who is also the director of Pathway to Citizenship Long Island.
NCPD’s stated policy has been that officers do not have discretion when it comes to arresting individuals for driving without a license. But, Damas said that multiple officers have said that they do in fact have such discretion to let someone go after such a violation.
The next day, Guerra pled guilty to unlicensed operation of a vehicle and was transferred to ICE custody to be held in their detention center in Hudson County, New Jersey.
Damas described Guerra’s ordeal as one mired in confusion and deception.
On Aug. 15, Damas and co-counsel Emily Torstveit Ngara, director of the Hofstra Deportation Defense Clinic, filed an emergency stay against the removal with a court in Harlingen, Texas, where the removal order originally came from. They also filed an additional, separate stay with the ICE branch in New Jersey.
Normally, the stay — requested on the grounds of a claim of asylum — would have temporarily prevented the deporation.
After not hearing anything back from ICE for several days, Damas continued to check the agency’s database and eventually found on Aug. 21 that Guerra’s location changed from New Jersey to an indication to “contact ICE field office.”
Co-counsel Ngara then visited the ICE field office in Newark, New Jersey to find out more. Officials there claimed he was being held in the Hudson detention center, but was under the jurisdiction of New York. The exasperated Damas questioned why the New Jersey office even accepted the stay to begin with, with no response from officials.
They then contacted the New York office, who confirmed their jurisdiction on the case, but also contradicted the New Jersey office’s statement, saying he was being held in New York instead.
Later that day, Guerra called his family to let them know he was in neither state, but rather in Louisiana, awaiting “imminent removal.”
Damas and Ngara then immediately faxed a copy of the stay to the New York office, which then denied the stay for an apparent lack of sufficient ground.
Damas asserted that by failing to notify counsel of Guerra’s imminent removal, ICE violated the Orantes injunction, a permanent, national injunction imposed by a U.S. district court in 1988 that affirmed certain rights for Salvadoran nationals held in immigration detention. Among these rights is the requirement that a detainee’s counsel must be notified within 24 hours of a scheduled removal.
At 5 p.m. on Aug. 22, Ngara received a call from ICE that Guerra was scheduled to be removed at 6 a.m. the next day. But then, an hour and a half later, Damas said, ICE officials told Guerra that he would not be removed until Friday.
However, “he was woken up at pre-dawn hours this morning telling him that it was his last sunrise in the United States,” Damas said last Wednesday. “And, he was removed at 6 o’clock this morning.”
Angie Sosa, Guerra’s fiancée and a member of the congregation of Our Lady of Loretto in Hempstead, said the couple has been together since 2014.
She said Guerra has been involved with the church since 2007, serving for a year as a youth coordinator. There, he helped steer young people away from gangs toward a better life.
She added that even after his tenure as a coordinator, he continued to help the church, whether it was helping to paint, raising funds or just tidying up around the chapel.
“He’s a good guy, he was never in trouble, he was always helping,” Sosa, also from El Salvador said. “It’s actually really hard.”
Responding to the incident, NCPD spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun said in a statement that police will not inquire into a person’s status “unless they are arrested for a crime.”
“This includes the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses, and anyone who calls the police seeking assistance,” LeBrun stated.
However, Damas took issue with this, asserting that there was no arrestable offense in the incident, since it was a traffic violation and not a crime.
“The Department cooperates with ICE, as it does with all of our federal partners,” LeBrun further stated. “As for the basis of Mr. Denis Guerra Guerra’s deportation, we would have to defer those questions to ICE.”
The ICE New York branch did not respond for comment before Monday’s deadline.