Deported Pastor Allowed To Return To San Diego On Parole
Customs and Border Protection grants temporary permission to enter U.S. on case-by-case basis
Every day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection receives requests for parole: temporary permission for foreigners to enter the United States without a visa. They're often requested for medical or family emergencies. Many applicants are denied, but pastor Enrique Cervantes' was not.
“For me it was a gift, a special gift from God,” said the 46-year-old National City resident who was deported to Mexico earlier this year. “Because God told me he was going to take me out and that he was going to bring me back again.”
Earlier this month, Cervantes was allowed to re-enter the U.S. for removal proceedings. This means he could get deported again. But the family plans to ask the judge to let Cervantes stay, citing his two-decade history of contributions to the community that includes his involvement in a church and his tax-paying record. Cervantes’ wife and five children are all U.S. citizens. His youngest daughter has Down Syndrome.
Customs officials and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the specifics of Cervantes’ case. Both agencies have the authority to grant parole, but it is discretionary. ICE said in a statement, “Parole determinations are made on a case by case basis.”
Law allows parole for deportees
Parole is usually granted to foreigners who want to visit a dying relative in the hospital or attend a relative’s funeral, said Lilia Velasquez, a San Diego immigration lawyer. It can be granted to foreigners to serve as witnesses in court or impart useful intelligence to the government.
It may also be granted in cases where immigration authorities made a mistake in deporting someone.
“It’s a very helpful tool to bring people here for a variety of reasons,” Velasquez said.
Advanced parole allows immigrants who entered the U.S. legally to leave and re-enter when they are applying for a change of immigration status.
Velasquez said immigration officials became more selective about who they allowed into the country after 9/11 due to concerns about security. Neither CBP nor ICE has released figures about the proportion of applications that are granted.
“The thing about parole is that it’s discretionary,” she said.
Families denied parole
Last month, five families who approached the San Ysidro Port of Entry to request parole were turned away. One man, Victor Ledezma, has an epileptic U.S.-citizen son who was having seizures that the family said were tied to the separation from his father. The family lived in Los Angeles, but the boy and his mother moved to San Diego to be closer Ledezma.
“They processed our applications, but they don’t want to help,” Ledezma said.
A UC San Diego neurologist wrote a letter recommending that the family be reunited to help the health of 9-year-old Yethvik Ledezma.
“I just get sick. Because I get worried about him,” the boy said.
Earlier this week, Ledezma said he was planning to reapply, this time by contacting federal immigration offices in Washington, D.C. He said he believes he will have better luck bypassing the ports of entry.
“I heard about a man who was able to do that,” he said.
That man was Enrique Cervantes.
Pastor succeeds in getting parole
Cervantes was brought to the U.S. when he was 11. In his early 20s, he was charged with a misdemeanor and was deported. He was using drugs and alcohol at the time.
After he re-entered the U.S. illegally, he decided to change his life. He began to dedicate himself to his church and community service.
“I started feeling the need to help drug addicts and alcoholics, because that’s what I was,” Cervantes said.
He started volunteering guidance to drug addicts in rehabilitation across San Diego County. He preached to them and tried to inspire them to persevere and change their lives as he had.
Two decades later, on April 25, he was stopped at an immigration checkpoint on his way to a church meeting. His prior immigration violation and misdemeanor showed up on his record. The Obama administration has been prioritizing the removal of immigrants with criminal convictions and prior immigration violations.
CBP officials put him on a bus to Yuma, Arizona, and deported him to San Luis Rio Colorado within hours. He was not allowed to speak to his lawyer or his family.
“I fell on my knees in despair and spoke to God. I said, ‘Lord, you haven’t abandoned me, and you won’t abandon me,’” Cervantes said.
His family teamed up with immigration activists to rally for his return so that he could argue his case in court.
His 26-year-old daughter, Mayra Cervantes, led the effort.
“We made about 100 phone calls,” she said.
She started a blog about her father’s contributions to society and sent a large binder to immigration officials in Washington, D.C., filled with letters of recommendation from the community, certificates of recognition her father had won, tax records, evidence of his family’s military and church service, and more.
“My dad’s legacy — everything that he’s implanted in this country through us — we gathered that packet together. We gathered about 100 letters within a week,” she said.
Less than two months later, Cervantes is back at home in National City.
“I still can’t wake up from the dream,” Cervantes said. “I’m still nervous. I feel God is still accommodating me.”
Cervantes’ wife, Marisol, said the first thing she did with her husband when he returned was take a long walk.
“We walked for a long, long time, just me and him. And I was telling him, just breathe, you’re here, every step you make, this is your city, this is where you belong,” she said.
Cervantes fights to stay long term
Parole is a temporary status, but Cervantes wants to continue living in the U.S. His family plans to argue for prosecutorial discretion, which gives ICE officials the power to look the other way.
Cervantes’ attorney, Ginger Jacobs, said prosecutorial discretion is equivalent to a plea bargain in a criminal case. She’s confident Cervantes will qualify. For court purposes, the case would be administratively closed. It would remain on his record, but it would be inactive.
“It leaves him in legal limbo, but he can continue to stay in the U.S.,” Jacobs said.
The case could be reopened if Cervantes were to commit another crime or if Jacobs wanted to request total closure based on case law developments or immigration reforms for which Cervantes may qualify in the future.
Cervantes’ court proceedings have yet to be scheduled.
Jacobs said she is seeing “some movement” from CBP and ICE in implementing recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security memos that encourage the use of prosecutorial discretion.
Cervantes said he is sure he will be able to stay. He thinks God allowed his deportation because he wanted Cervantes to preach at a bigger scale. In Mexico, he started taking addicts to church. He hopes to start preaching cross-country in the U.S.
“I have the certainty and faith that God will finish the job he started,” he said. “He started something and he’s going to finish it. That’s why I feel confident. I feel God is at my side. He has my hand. Working for him, I don’t think I should be afraid.”
This report is part of KPBS' Fronteras Project, a regional news collaborative that produces reports on the changing culture and demographics of the American West and Southwest. Fronteras reporting is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.