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JUPITER, Florida – The story of Víctor C. and his wife Maty M. could well represent the American Dream.
He fled the violence of war in Guatemala as a teenager. Years later, she crossed Mexico and came to the United States in search of a better life. They met, fell in love, started a family and opened a tire repair shop.
They live in a two-bedroom house with a dog and fruit trees. Their biggest treasure is Jimmy, 13, an only child who excels in science and plays the violin.
Everything would have been perfect, if not for the couple's failure to legalize their immigration status. On March 8, their nightmare began during a routine appointment with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Now, everything the family has built seemed threatened.
"When we went to renew my (work) permit they told me that I had to come in with my husband and son," a sobbing Maty recalled of that day more than four months ago. "That was the day he was detained because they asked for identification and he showed his work permit. The officer looked at it and laughed and said, 'This is worthless.' He threw it away and said we had to go back to our country."
Maty, 42, said she was upset that the ICE officers did not take into account their work permits, the fact that her husband has been in the U.S. for 24 years and she for 15, or that they have a 13-year-old son who's a U.S. citizen. But she was more upset about the way the family was treated.
"They told me that we were like fish, that we had turned ourselves in, biting the hook like a fish," she said. "They said that they did not need to go looking for us, because by law we had to go to that office to get the papers we needed, and that's where they grabbed us. That we had saved them work."
Her husband is being held at the Broward Detention Center, north of Miami-Dade County, and she is wearing an ankle monitor. They're both fighting old deportation orders that were never executed.
New Deportation Priorities
Maty's drama has become a familiar story in recent months as the Trump administration expands deportation priorities to include those who faced old deportation orders. That means that immigrants who are well-established in the United States wind up being held for deportation when they go to ICE offices to check in as required.
Maty said the couple started to worry when deportation priorities changed. “They said they were going to deport delinquents, bad people, people with a criminal record,” she said. “But my husband is not a criminal. He doesn't have a record. His crime was to come to this country as a boy and work. But a lot of times we suffer because of our ignorance. We're not informed, we don't know."
Maty faces a deportation order issued in 2006, while Victor faces two: one issued in Ohio in 1996 and the other in 2006, when ICE said he used false identification under the name of Israel Gonzalez.
"ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement," the agency said in a statement to Univision. "All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States".
Under the Obama Administration, Victor and Maty won stays of removal, which allowed them to receive work permits and start their tire repair shop.
But the very moment the Trump Administration removed the exceptions adopted by former President Barack Obama, immigration authorities started enforcing existing deportation orders, said attorney Ezequiel Hernandez. That's why work permits issued to families like Maty's are not being renewed.
Immigration attorney Jill Hansen, one of the administrators of the El Sol community center in Jupiter, said the requests for stays of removal followed strict guidelines. "If you had been in the U.S. for more than five years, if you had children or other relatives born in the U.S. and if you didn't have a criminal record, the deportation order could be suspended," she said.
But "you had to go (to ICE offices) every year. That was pretty much automatic in the past. They checked if you did not have a criminal record, signed and told you, 'Come back next year,'" Hansen told Univision News.
Running the Business
The March ICE visit didn't go so well. Maty left sobbing desperately and wearing an ankle monitor. Her son Jimmy was waiting outside.
"My mother cried and cried the whole way to register the monitor," the boy recalled. "Then we went home and my uncles stayed with us a little trying to calm her down. But while everything was going on I kept remembering what my dad told me. 'Be good. Always, obey your your mother.'"
She barely slept that night, but she woke up the next morning determined to run the shop and fight to stay in the United States.
"I told myself, 'My husband won't be there, but I have to be here because I have to open the shop, I have to believe that he's going to come back,'" she said. "I have the responsibility to take care of my son first and everything to do with our finances. And I have to fight."
She prayed to God that customers would come in. And then the five-foot-tall woman rolled up her sleeves. Instead of answering the phones and handling the office as usual, she began jacking up cars, changing tires and negotiating with clients.
Her husband's absence has impacted the family's finances, though. Victor is a mechanic and took on additional jobs at the shop to supplement the family's income. Maty had to let go of one of the shop's two employees, but relatives and friends are always around to lend a hand.
The Legal Fight
Jimmy says that on the day his father was detained, he understood that he had to take on new responsibilities.
"I was very sad that my father was not here, and I began to realize that if he's not here, I have to do what he used to do," he said. "I have to be the man of the house, but it's been hard … I am shattered inside."
Now on summer vacation, he goes to the shop every day to handle phone calls and client services. He also goes to church with his mother several times a week. They both wake up at 5 a.m. every Sunday to visit his father at the Broward Detention Center.
Jimmy has joined his mom's efforts to fight against the deportation orders, including with an online petition he personally sent to Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and other government officials.
The petition has gathered nearly 1,200 signatures. "I saw that even the bad kids who are always making trouble at school wrote that I study with them … and they want me to be here," he said.
Their lawyer, Héctor Díaz, has been trying to reopen the oldest deportation case against Victor from 1996, arguing that he was then a 16-year-old who didn't speak Spanish or English, only a Maya language, and that he never received an official notice of his court appointment.
If he wins, Díaz said, he will then go after the second deportation order. But he acknowledged that it's a difficult case because Victor never appealed the two orders. And the time that his client has spent in the United States since 1996 does not count. “Neither his work, nor his business, nor his contributions to society count in legal terms,” the lawyer explained.
Like many other undocumented immigrants, Victor and Maty had no legal help when they arrived to the U.S., fleeing the war and lack of economic opportunities in Guatemala. They said they did not understand their immigration status until a few years ago, after they had settled in Jupiter, when they consulted with a lawyer about Jimmy's future.
That's how they obtained their work permits. With their business doing well, the family became a staple of the community.
"Victor is a family man, involved in his community," said Constance Holmes, who, along with Victor, coached a soccer team for poor children in the community. "I don't believe he meets the profile of people that our president wants to deport."
Many of the tire shop's clients are surprised to learn that the family is in danger of being deported. They've begun speaking candidly about the possibility of returning to Guatemala.
"I think I'm still not prepared, if they tell me they are going to deport him, because in my heart I still want the three of us to remain together and move ahead with our small business," Maty said.
But she will not accept separation, she added. "We would all have to go and stay together. That will be hard on Jimmy, who always says he doesn't want to leave because he wants to enroll in university here."
He'll be in 8th grade this year.
"We'd like him to study, so he doesn't have to suffer what we suffered," Maty said, "so that his future will be better and so that some day he will be a successful man."