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For some undocumented immigrants with cases, jail is only option to prevent deportation

Undocumented immigrant Jose Manuel Maldonado became a free man this month following seven months at the Fresno County Jail.

But he still lives in fear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will arrest him, said Fresno attorney Amanda K. Moran, who represented Maldonado.

Moran said Maldonado’s case is an example of how some undocumented defendants can be placed in a difficult situation by not being allowed to be free on bail — languishing in jail for months — due to concerns that ICE can detain and deport them without their court cases being resolved.

Her 31-year-old client’s ICE hold was taken into consideration when Fresno County Superior Court Judge Brian Alvarez in March considered whether to reduce his bail, court documents show.

California’s Sanctuary Law limits local law enforcement agencies, like Fresno County Sheriff’s Office which oversees the jail, from assisting in immigration enforcement.

Maldonado was arrested in February on a felony child abuse charge that was dropped on Aug. 6 due to lack of evidence. Moran said there was no evidence to support the allegations against her client, and medical records backed that. She said the charges against her client were brought forward by an ex-girlfriend.

But he spent almost seven months at the county jail because he couldn’t afford his $220,000 bail, said Moran, who filed a motion to reduce the bail.

“But in this case, because he had the pending charges and he’s not legal, ICE would have immediately deported him,” she said. “The court found that he was safer here (in county jail) because if they released him on bail, he would be deported and then this issue would never be resolved. So, they placed him in this really unfair position.”

A certified court transcript of Maldonado’s bail reduction hearing in March indicates the judge was concerned about ICE possibly detaining and deporting Maldonado while his case was still unfolding in court.

According to a copy of the March 20 bail reduction hearing transcript, Fresno Deputy District Attorney Dennis D. Verzosa said his office had been informed by Fresno Police Department lead Detective Nelly Rodriguez that Maldonado had an ICE hold.

The ICE hold was part of the reason why the District Attorney’s Office was opposing a bail reduction for Maldonado, saying he would be a flight risk.

Judge Alvarez asked prosecutor Verzosa if he should consider the ICE hold, questioning whether Maldonado would be able to keep his court appearances. “I mean, that’s problematic in light of California being a sanctuary state and the law being in flex regarding law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE,” Verzosa responded. “I’m just noting the ICE hold as a potential reason for a flight risk.”

After attorney Janay Kinder, filling in for Maldonado’s attorney Moran, didn’t refute the ICE hold, saying she didn’t believe it was relevant to the bail reduction decision since he had not missed a court hearing and had been in the country since he was 6 years old.

Judge Alvarez then decided not to reduce Maldonado’s bail.

“The court would note that I will consider the ICE hold since it’s not disputed here that he is subject to being removed or deported from the United States,” said Alvarez, according to the transcript. “That factors into this court’s decision, quite frankly, with regards to whether or not he would be able to keep his (court) appearances, not whether or not he’s a flight risk.”

Suzanne Abi-Rached, spokeswoman for the Fresno County Superior Court, said the court would not comment on individual cases. In general terms, she declined to comment on whether the court has taken measures to prevent ICE from detaining people at the courthouse while their cases are still pending.

She referred The Bee to a previous statement that says California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has spoken on behalf of the state’s courts on the issue of courthouse arrests.

Cantil-Sakauye has been vocal in her opposition to ICE’s practice of detaining people in courthouses.

Verzosa declined to comment on whether his office was concerned that if ICE detained Maldonado, whether he would be able to move forward with the case. Verzosa reiterated that Maldonado’s case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning if evidence surfaces that would allow his office to refile the case, it will do so, although that possibility could be “unlikely.”

Jon Rodney, with the California Immigrant Policy Center, said Maldonado’s case “illustrates why we should protect due process for everyone, including undocumented immigrants.”

ICE in mid-July began to carry out arrests at the Fresno County Superior Court. Those who were detained had not yet reached a resolution in their court proceedings.

Despite Maldonado’s new-found freedom, he had another hurdle to overcome upon his release: the possibility of ICE detaining him once he stepped outside the county jail.

Maldonado’s fiancé, Maria Valencia, anxiously waited for his call to go pick him up on Aug. 6. Nearly 12 hours after Maldonado’s charges were dropped, her phone finally rang at close to 8 p.m.

The family and Moran headed to the Fresno County Jail North campus to wait for him. They kept looking around — not only for him, but also for ICE agents.

The feared arrest by ICE didn’t happen. Still, the family remains on edge. “We were nervous. They didn’t (take him), which is good,” Valencia said late on Aug. 6. “But there’s still obviously that scare. It’s ICE. They are unpredictable.”

Maldonado said he believes his situation is far from unique.

He’s required to occasionally appear before an immigration judge in San Francisco. His required court appearances at immigration court stem from previous drug-related charges that were resolved. He faced deportation if he had new pending charges, and although his latest charges were dropped, there’s still uncertainty over whether he can be deported.

His next immigration court date is scheduled for Sept. 4.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many undocumented immigrants who were acquitted of crimes — or had charges dropped — could still be at risk of deportation. Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said the practice of ICE detaining people, even if they were found not guilty of a crime, could become a growing issue as ICE clamps down on more undocumented immigrants.

“The possibility of a person without a conviction getting detained by ICE is great, especially when a sheriff department or a police department works hand in hand with immigration officials,” he said. “Often, rogue agencies decide they will jump over due process and hand over people to ICE without regards to the impact this will have on families and communities.”

Although, Maldonado was able to reach a resolution in his recent court case, several of those individuals who have recently been detained by ICE at the Fresno courthouse were taken without having their cases resolved.

On a related note, following an ICE arrest in a Sacramento courtroom last week, Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge David De Alba this week pledged to work with local authorities — and ICE if needed — to prevent courthouse arrests from happening.

Maricela Gutierrez, executive director for Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, said the recent courthouse arrests show how the justice system can become flawed when it comes to providing people the opportunity to prove their innocence in court.

“Many of these individuals haven’t had their day in court,” she said. “They haven’t had the opportunity to defend themselves.”

Yesenia Amaro and Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee

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