In the small city of Willard in northern Ohio, Jesús Lara López felt he had it all: the comfortable house he bought with his wife Anahí last year; the good schools attended by his four kids; a stable job packing cookies in a factory; and a faith-based community at the local church.
Then came an ultimatum.
At his routine appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in March, Lara López was told he needed to buy a one-way ticket to Mexico, the country he left behind when he came to the United States illegally in 2001. He's been ordered to leave his home in Ohio by next Tuesday.
Over the past month, activists and community members have pleaded with ICE to let the 37-year-old immigrant remain with his family. Nearly 35,000 people have signed a petition asking for a stay of his deportation. And his children, aged 6 to 13, have gone on television, canvassed in their communities and even traveled to Washington to plead with legislators to help.
Nothing has worked.
In many ways, Lara López's case shows how immigration enforcement has quickly ramped up under the Trump administration. Last month, the acting director ICE said every immigrant in the country illegally
"should be afraid" of being sent back to their country. And, according to
an internal memo obtained by ProPublica last week, ICE agents in charge of deportations were told in February to "take action" against any undocumented immigrant they encountered while on duty, even if they were not the target of an operation.
That's how Lara López's case unfolded. He simply went to his ICE appointment in March, like he's done for the past six years, and was told his time was up. He was even fitted with an electronic ankle monitor.
It was a sharp departure from his previous appointments, which usually ended with Lara López being told to come back next year once he showed he'd broken no laws and had no plans of disappearing.
"Unfortunately it's become a pretty common pattern all across country," said Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America's Voice and an Ohio advocate who has closely followed Lara López's case. "What's crazy is that ICE is going after people who are walking into their offices, people who are trying to do what they’re supposed to be doing, the rule followers. (Lara López) is very religious and he'll do what the government says. He's just asking for a little compassion."
Lara López already bought his plane ticket for next Tuesday, though he has faith that a miracle might save him before he's forced to leave. "I declare I'm going to stay here," he said during a recent phone interview. "I trust God more than anyone."
His lawyer, David Leopold, has tried to show ICE that Lara López is not a public threat or a burden on the government. He even submitted the testimony of his children's former English teacher, his pastor and a representative from the recruiting company that got him his job at the factory.
"I've provided them with tax returns all the way back to 2002. They know he owns a home, they know he has four kids who are doing great. They've never addressed any one of those factors," he said.
Leopold, who is a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, could suspend his client's deportation using his prosecutorial discretion.
"Kelly is saying the opposite, but the law gives him the absolute authority to stop this deportation. He has broad discretion not to deport someone who isn't a priority. There’s no reason at all to separate this father from his family," he said.
Lara López has some family members in Mexico, including his mother and siblings. But he says his children need him in Ohio. "I ask them (the government) with all my heart to be kind, and not to throw away everything I've built, not to separate me from my family that I love so much," he pleaded. "My children need me and I need them. We need to be together."
In a short statement, the ICE spokesman in Ohio, Khaalid Walls, did not detail the reasons the agency was prioritizing Lara López's deportation.
"He was ordered removed in 2011 by an immigration judge. In an excercise of discretion, the agency has allowed him to remain free from custody to finalize his departure plans," Walls said.
"With respect to when he's slated to depart, we do not confirm removal arrangements prior to a person's successful repatriation," he added.