In nearly indisputable likelihood, President Trump will leave office on Jan. 20.
That could very well be six weeks too late for Eleazar Lopez Ayala. In the worst-case scenario, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will deport the 43-year-old father of four to his native Honduras nine days from today.
Ayala, who sneaked into this country at the age of 17, became a cause celebre three years ago when City Matters first reported about him. He and a friend were on a lunch break from a nearby construction site when their car got a flat while driving through Deerfield.
Deerfield police called ICE, and Ayala, who had stayed out of trouble and worked hard for years, found himself in an ICE jail cell in Massachusetts.
His detention disproved the notion, popular at the time, that ICE was concentrating on hardened criminals and gang members. No, ICE was coming for people who might be working on the addition to your house or whose kids attend school alongside your children.
Deerfield police quickly adopted an ICE policy because, let’s face it, Ayala’s arrest amounted to racial profiling. Deerfield townspeople raised money for Ayala’s family, as did a Keene activist and parishioners of Ayala’s church here in Manchester, the immigrant-friendly St. Anne-St. Augustin Parish.
After nine months, ICE released Ayala and he eventually resumed a normal American life of provider, father, churchgoer.
But on Nov. 9, ICE told Ayala to arrive at the federal building in downtown Manchester with his bags packed.
For three years, his lawyers had tried to convince a judge to reopen his case. But his appeals were exhausted, and ICE told him he would have to self-deport, meaning he had to pay for his own plane ticket.
He arrived at the ICE offices with his family and a crowd of supporters.
Luckily for him, Hurricane Eta had arrived days before in Honduras, closing all international airports and burying much of the country in floodwaters and mud. Two weeks later, Hurricane Iota struck Honduras. As it stands now, however, Ayala must leave on Dec. 9.
“Now I understand the suffering of other families,” Ayala said through a translator the day before Thanksgiving. “I watch others tell stories on TV. You only understand the meaning of it when you have to live it in the flesh.”
Ayala speaks rudimentary English, but he used a translator — immigrant-rights activist and Manchester Police Commissioner Eva Castillo — to assist.
“As someone who works with police departments, to see police call ICE for a flat tire, why would they feel the need to do that?” Castillo said. “These are hard-working people. This is so unfair.”
I tried to get comment from ICE, emailing the media contact early Wednesday, and then again on Friday. I got an out-of-office reply.
I combed their website. It has lots of news releases: “Criminal alien arrested for double homicide,” “ICE lodges detainer on man accused of child sex assault” and “ICE removes unlawfully present Salvadoran national wanted for membership in terrorist organization.”
Nothing along the lines of “Responsible Dad self deports, leaving shattered family.”
In one news release, ICE said it does not exempt any removable aliens from enforcement. “ICE takes many factors into account when targeting and arresting individuals, including their criminal and immigration history,” the release states.
I spoke to Ayala and his wife, Maria Cubias, in the same kitchen where I interviewed Cubias three years earlier. Ayala is a carpenters’ union member and earns about $27 an hour working drywall and construction in Massachusetts. The family isn’t on welfare, housing or food stamps. They do qualify for Medicaid.
As we spoke, their 13- and 12-year-old sons watched TV in the living room, while 6-year-old Dylan walked into the kitchen on occasion. All three are American-born and as much a citizen as I am.
Cubias said Ayala is a great father. He cooks his kids dinner when she works. He stays home and doesn’t carouse. He prays with his kids at night.
Now, Cubias fears she will have to raise the three boys — two of them on the cusp of adolescence — without Ayala.
“To be by myself and be mother and father for three boys is not going to be easy. You know how boys are,” she said. Meanwhile, she won’t go on welfare, fearing that will affect her temporary protected status.
On deportation day Nov. 9, about 45 activists from across the state gathered outside the federal building in Manchester when Ayala showed up, Castillo said. He hugged his children and went inside, only to emerge later, told to return Dec. 9.
His lawyer, Jeffrey Rubin of Boston, said ICE showed Ayala a great deal of respect. Rubin noted that representatives from the offices of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Pappas accompanied him into the office.
“I felt like I was loaded with political clout, double-barrel,” he said.
He has one final legal strategy — to ask ICE to hold off deportation until February, when Ayala’s stepson turns 21. Under existing policy, if a U.S. citizen/family member vouches for an undocumented immigrant, the immigrant can receive a provisional waiver, Rubin said. All that’s necessary is for Ayala to return to Honduras briefly.
Ayala has a good case for permanent residency based on the merits, not politics, Rubin said.
At the same time, the election of Joe Biden to the presidency sets a tone that favors Ayala, Rubin said. The Democratic president-elect has said he will restore the DACA program. Biden is considering a 100-day hold on deportations and is likely to narrow guidelines for ICE operations.
The more that Biden’s victory becomes apparent, the less incentive for ICE to play hardball, Rubin said.
Ayala said he’s never thought about running and waiting it out. A monitoring bracelet is attached to his ankle. Rubin has warned that running would ruin any chances Ayala might have. Ayala has even declined offers from churches for sanctuary.
“I want to stay here; I don’t want to go there,” he said. “But if they say to leave Dec. 9, I have to go.”