On a rainy Sunday in early June, Jesus Alberto Lopez Gutierrez — “Beto” to his friends — took out the grill at his uncle’s house in West Elsdon to cook his family carne asada.
Lopez Gutierrez had lived in the basement unit with his parents and siblings since immigrating from Mexico in 2005. The pandemic largely put an end to big family gatherings, but neither rain nor coronavirus could stop his aunts, grandparents, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews from showing up.
They wanted to say goodbye.
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It had been three months since Lopez Gutierrez was released on bail from immigration detention after being stopped for speeding. But after an appellate court upheld a deportation order in May, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency told him to show up June 9 at their field office in Iowa.
So Lopez Gutierrez says, “I had a feeling that Sunday might be the last time I saw my family.”
He was right. The day after his Iowa check-in, ICE put him on a plane back to his native Mexico.
ICE rarely deports anyone from Chicago to Mexico that quickly.
“It typically takes two to three weeks to be removed from the Chicago area,” says Diana Rashid, a supervising attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. “I can’t think of a case where it happened in less than a week.”
Lopez Gutierrez’s lawyers think the quick deportation was in retaliation for him suing ICE after the agency blocked his request to be released from detention last year so he could apply for deportation relief under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy under which he appeared to qualify.
An ICE spokesman won’t discuss that, saying the agency arrested and deported Lopez Gutierrez because his deportation appeal fell through.
Immigration officials still haven’t issued a final ruling on Lopez Gutierrez’s DACA application. But they said days before he was deported that they intended to deny it based on three nonviolent traffic violations — which his lawyers say wouldn’t allow his deportation under the agency’s policies.
A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees DACA, says that agency doesn’t comment on individual applications.
A week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s plan to dismantle DACA. The nation’s high court found that the government offered no compelling legal basis for ending the policy former President Barack Obama instituted to protect those brought to the United States as children who want to stay and be able to legally go to school and work.
But the administration already had essentially made DACA useless for many of the estimated 680,000 young, undocumented immigrants who potentially qualify for DACA but, as was the case with Lopez Gutierrez, are not currently protected by the policy and could be deported even though this is the only country many have known as home.
“As a mother, you see your kids as being almost perfect,” says Lourdes Gutierrez, Lopez Gutierrez’s mother. “But if only people knew how goodhearted my son is, maybe they wouldn’t have taken him away.”
The youngest of three children in his family, Lopez Gutierrez was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco. His family came to Chicago and settled on the Southwest Side when he was 10, after his father Miguel Lopez was laid off from his job at a brewery in Guadalajara.
“The plan was to come for three years and save up, but it’s almost been 15, and we’re still here,” Lopez says.
Lopez Gutierrez graduated from Solorio Academy High School in 2014 and started working construction jobs soon after.
“He just had this perfect mixture of humor, maturity and curiosity that made him someone others gravitated to,” says Jacob Caplan, his teacher for advanced placement psychology at Solorio.
As a graduation present, Lopez Gutierrez bought himself a white snake. He named it Yogi, after the cartoon bear.
“Snakes strangle their food,” he says, “like a bear hug, you know?”
Lopez Gutierrez’s mom says Yogi symbolized her son’s reverence for nature.
“During the holidays in Jalisco when he was a little kid, we would go to the forests or the beach, and he would love every minute of it,” she says.
It was Lopez Gutierrez’s love for the outdoors that put him on ICE’s radar. In May 2019, a police officer in Iowa pulled him and his friends over for speeding on their way back from a camping trip in Colorado. The officer searched the car and said they found a small amount of marijuana. All three initially were charged, but the charges were soon dropped.
Lopez Gutierrez spent nine months in four different detention centers across the Midwest. “I was being punished,” he says, “but I never hurt anyone.”
While in detention, Lopez Gutierrez applied for DACA, which grants a two-year reprieve from deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children before 2007. He had applied for and gotten DACA protection in 2013 but didn’t renew it when it expired in 2015.
“Living in Chicago, I never interacted with Immigration,” he says. “I thought I was safe.”
Immigration authorities refused to process Lopez Gutierrez’s new DACA application because he was in detention. When he petitioned ICE to release him so he could apply, the agency didn’t act until, in December, he sued ICE in federal court, saying the agency had violated federal procedural law by ignoring his request.
By then, his older brother Miguel Lopez, 27, an artist and member of Organized Communities Against Deportations, an activist group in Chicago, had led protests calling for Lopez Gutierrez’s release.
In late February, an immigration court judge granted Lopez Gutierrez a $25,000 bail. His family and his brother’s activist group were able to raise the money in two days and had him back home by the beginning of March.
For the first few weeks home, Lopez Gutierrez says he rarely left his bedroom. He’d often lose his appetite. Even walking to the corner store was tough. He felt depressed.
“After being locked up for so long, you forget what it feels like to be free,” he says.
His parents noticed how their youngest son was struggling but were grateful to have him home after worrying about him when he was in detention.
“There was never a time in the day I wouldn’t think about him,” Lourdes Gutierrez says. “I would feel bad lying down in my bed, knowing he couldn’t do the same.”
Miguel Lopez also had taken his son’s absence hard. Lopez, a laundry worker at a downtown hotel who’s now out of a job because of the coronavirus pandemic, always liked to listen to music around the house — but not when his son was gone. “I didn’t put on any music until finally, he was back with us,” he says.
Lopez Gutierrez said he started to feel like himself a month after being back home. He started coming out of his room more and opening up about his time in detention. As the pandemic spread, he delivered groceries to his grandmother’s doorstep. “I was finally getting the hang of things again,” he says.
But ICE wasn’t done with him. In April, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld his deportation order. Soon after, ICE told him to come to its field office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for an in-person check-in June 9.
Hoping to save his parents from having to make tough decisions if he was deported, Lopez Gutierrez started giving away some of his possessions — including Yogi. At first, he had a hard time finding someone to adopt the snake. About a week before his ICE check-in, a friend agreed to take it.
“I just asked that he send pictures from time to time,” Lopez Gutierrez says.
His lawyers hoped his DACA application would be approved before his meeting with ICE.
But June 8, a day before driving to Iowa, Lopez Gutierrez got a letter in from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“You have been convicted of three or more non-significant misdemeanors,” said the letter, citing two reckless driving convictions for speeding in 2015 and a citation for driving with an open container in April 2019. “Accordingly, USCIS intends to deny your request.”
The agency gave Lopez Gutierrez 33 days to appeal.
But ICE moved more quickly to deport him.
“After he was detained, his family weren’t able to reach him, and we weren’t getting answers from the government,” says Hanan Van Dril, a supervising attorney with Beyond Legal Aid. “It was only through our contact in the Mexican consulate that we were able to confirm he had been deported. We didn’t even know he was on the plane until after he was on board.”
Van Dril plans to appeal the DACA denial and keep arguing Lopez Gutierrez’s case against ICE in federal court, hoping somehow to get Lopez Gutierrez back to Chicago.
“We won’t stop fighting until a judge tells us we don’t have a case,” she says.
Lopez Gutierrez is now in his hometown of Jalisco — where, like in Chicago, he lives in an uncle’s house.
“The three months I had back home after being in detention [helped] me grow and adapt,” he says. “It changed my perspective on life. Now, I enjoy every day for what it is.”
Lopez Gutierrez wants to open a plant nursery.
“I want to take this chance and become a small business owner and create something new,” he says.
In Chicago, his parents have an empty nest again.
Though ICE separated the family, his father says: “No one can take away the three months we had our son back. It shows what communities can do once they’re organized.”