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Bardstown wife fighting to save deported husband

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Family’s future uncertain after Mexican man who lived in country for 20 years — and tried to stay legally — was denied, returned

By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

Erick Alberto Cortez Olvera had made a home and a family in Bardstown. He worked hard as a concrete foreman to provide a nice house and private school education for the three children, ages 10 to 3, he and his wife are raising. He paid his taxes. He was that neighbor that when someone needed help, he would lend it.

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He was similar in many ways to most other Nelson County residents who go to work each day to pursue the American Dream of raising a family and making a better life for their children. But there was one difference. Cortez entered the United States without authorization 20 years ago, when he was 15 years old. Late last month, U.S. Immigration enforcement deported him, leaving him at a Mexico City airport with no identification or money and only a bag of cookies, some chips and a water bottle.

It was the latest setback for a local family that has navigated the byzantine U.S. immigration system for more than a decade. Now, a family that wants only to stay together has been split apart, and Cortez might not be allowed back into the country for at least 10 years.

“I cannot accept that it’s over. I can’t. I know he deserves to be here. Our family deserves to be together. Erick is somebody that America wants. They want him as a citizen,” said Ashley Rogers, his wife.

Cortez applied for asylum several years ago and was denied. He applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which provides an avenue for people who entered the country illegally under the age of 16 to avoid removal, but was denied. Every time they thought they had found a way for him to stay in the country, Rogers said, a technicality or other discretionary decision slammed the door.

“He knows that he made a wrong decision. He knows that when he came here at 15, that was the wrong decision, but he has tried the steps in the process in the time he’s been here to make it right,” Rogers said.

Traffic stop leads to removal proceedings

Cortez had been ordered to leave the country voluntarily following an arrest in August 2010 in Bullitt County after he was pulled over by a Hillview Police officer for excessive tinting on his car windows. That stop resulted in charges of criminal possession of a forged instrument, carrying a concealed weapon, giving an officer a false name or address, no operator’s license, failure to maintain insurance, failure to register a vehicle, excessive window tinting and no registration plates.

Rogers said the concealed deadly weapon charge was for a set of brass knuckles that were hanging from the car’s rearview mirror. The car had not been transferred to their name because they were in the process of buying it but had not paid the owner the full amount yet, so the title had not been transferred.

The county prosecutor dismissed the felony forged instrument charge and the weapons and false name misdemeanors, and Cortez pleaded guilty to the traffic charges. But the court case also brought him to the attention of immigration enforcement, and Cortez was ordered to leave the country voluntarily.

Cortez’s marriage to Rogers did not qualify to keep him in the country because removal proceedings began before they were married.

He appealed and was granted a temporary stay on his order of removal. Had he left voluntarily he would have to go back to Mexico, leaving his wife and children behind with no guarantee that he would be allowed to return.

Rogers and Cortez thought that had bought them some breathing room while they worked through the legalities of getting Cortez permission to stay in the country permanently. By this summer, they had one of the best immigration attorneys in the state and Cortez’s DACA application had been pending for a year. They hoped to hear any day that it was approved.

A surprise denial, detention and deportation

But on June 22, Cortez was required to check in with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office in Louisville.

“I thought we were turning him in for them to adjudicate another stay of removal,” Rogers said.

Instead, he was taken into custody and informed the extension for his stay of removal had been denied. The notification was still in the mail when they walked into the office. That denial, Rogers believes, also automatically canceled his DACA application.

Cortez was taken to the Boone County jail, then shipped to the Chicago area on his way to New Orleans. For about three weeks his wife and his immigration attorney traded emails with ICE and other immigration officials trying to figure out why he had been denied and detained. Emails Rogers showed a Kentucky Standard reporter detailed confusion on the part of the attorney and immigration officials as to why Cortez was denied.

The letter Rogers received in the mail notifying Cortez of his denial was as blunt as it was cryptic, stating the basis simply as “Does not warrant favorable act of prosecutorial discretion.”

On July 26, Cortez was removed from the country while his attorney, wife and family were still trying to figure out why. They contacted the constituent services of Kentucky’s two U.S. Senators, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, as well as U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, and even Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, but they were not able to halt the deportation.

Rogers says she thinks there was some mistake. Some piece of paper had to be lost somewhere. She still works the phones and emails every day trying to figure out a way to bring her husband home to her and the children.

A family in limbo

Meanwhile, Cortez is in Mexico staying with a friend somewhere in the vicinity of Mexico City, but Rogers isn’t sure of the exact location. His parents live in Monterey, but the Mexican government has warned travelers to stay off the only highway to that city because of increased drug cartel activity.

Rogers is left at home to provide for the children and try to explain why Cortez isn’t home to tuck them in bed. Rogers has a 10-year-old who is not Cortez’s biological son but is treated as if he is his own. They also have a daughter who is 7, Isabella, and a 3-year-old son, Oliver. Rogers talks to Cortez nearly every day on the phone and he video chats with the kids. They are trying to keep it together.

“He’s hanging in there, and he’s trying to be strong, but he hears everything that is going on here,” Rogers said. “I’m taking care of the kids and they just started school and it was Ollie’s first day of preschool — he missed that — it’s pretty tough on him. I just keep telling him to hang in there. We’re OK here.”

Oliver thinks his dad is in the jungle “hunting dinosaurs,” and thinks that’s neat, Rogers said.

“It’s hard to explain to Oliver someone who has been there every night, every day after work since Oliver’s been born, where he went,” Rogers said.

But they don’t know how the family will stay intact. Because Cortez was forcibly deported after his stay of removal was not renewed, he faces what is legally called a “permanent bar” on entering the U.S., although he can apply after 10 years to return.

His daughter would be 17, and his son would be 13, well past the age of believing his father was still hunting dinosaurs.

Rogers said the only legal way for them to reunite would be for her and the children — all American citizens — to move to Mexico, but she is fearful of what that would mean for her kids’ safety.

“We would stick out like sore thumbs,” she said. “We would automatically be targets.”

She does not know what they will do. She also has a hard time figuring out how they got to this point.

Shifting priorities in targets for deportation

It is easy to point at the current administration in Washington, D.C., and the current occupant of the White House, when looking to place blame. But Rogers is reluctant to do so.

A major platform of Donald Trump’s successful run for president was based on targeting undocumented immigrants.

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” he said on the campaign trail on June 16, 2015.

His former press secretary, Sean Spicer, said in February that “the shackles” had come “off” of immigration enforcement officers.

The administration of former President Barack Obama, by some counts, deported more illegal immigrants than any other administration, although how those numbers are calculated is often disputed. But the Obama administration issued directives that priority would be placed on removing those who had committed serious crimes.

Those priorities were realigned under Trump, and were emphasized in a statement from a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security when asked to comment directly on Cortez’s removal.

“Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly has made it clear that ICE will no longer exempt any class of individuals from removal proceedings if they are found to be in the country illegally,” DHS Spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said in a July 20 statement responding to media queries about Cortez’s case.

Kelly was named Trump’s chief of staff July 31.

Deportations during Trump’s first 100 days in office are at a slightly lower rate than during the Obama administration, but priorities have shifted. Obama listed members of gangs, those convicted of felonies or aggravated felonies and those suspected of or engaged in terrorist or espionage activity as priorities.

But in a Jan. 25 executive order, Trump expanded the groups prioritized for deportation to include immigrants who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” going well beyond those convicted of crimes. That use of language “ means many more immigrants are considered deportation priorities,” Anna O. Law, an immigration law expert, wrote in “The Washington Post” in May.

So while Cortez was ordered removed under the Obama administration, he also received a stay of that removal. But in June, he was denied an extension because he “did not warrant favorable act of prosecutorial discretion,” according to his denial letter.

But Rogers is reluctant to point the blame at Trump. She admits that when he won election the couple feared Cortez’s status might be affected and looked at options to move to Canada. But she still doesn’t think Cortez is the type of immigrant Trump was targeting.

“Truly, I can’t tell you it’s Trump’s fault,” she said. “I don’t think it’s Trump’s fault. I think he really does want to get the bad guys out. I do believe wholeheartedly that he doesn’t want our country to be filled with people who could cause us harm.”

But she said his election is the only thing she can point toward.

“That’s the only change from when we were granted a stay until now,” she said.

She says the system is broken if it is targeting people like her husband.

“You’re wasting government resources on getting rid of people like Erick who are truly adding to the community,” she said. “Who was here being a productive member of society, raising his kids.”

She is aware that she lives in a county where 65 percent of the voters chose Trump, and previous media coverage has sparked backlash from the local community directed at her on social media. But she said many people don’t understand how difficult and complicated the immigration system and laws are to navigate.

“There have been so many people who have reached out to me on Facebook and they start out with a completely different opinion about things,” Rogers said. “But once they listen to me and we can have a civil conversation, and I explain to them everything we have done, they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was like that. Now I will definitely keep you in my prayers.’ ”