Federal officials acknowledged Wednesday that Juan Manuel Montes' protected immigration status was not due to expire until 2018, correcting themselves on one point in a case that thrust the 23-year-old Mexican national into the center of a heated debate on illegal immigration.
They had said Tuesday that Montes' protected status ended two years ago.
At the same time, Department of Homeland Security officials denied Montes' claim in a federal lawsuit that he had been deported, saying Wednesday he had voluntarily left the U.S. for Mexico.
That could make him ineligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which shields young people from deportation who were brought to the country as children and stayed illegally.
While Montes remained in Mexicali, separated from his family in California, his situation generated fury among immigration advocates and drew comment from top officials in the Trump administration.
He would be the first so-called Dreamer — as DACA enrollees are known — to be deported by the Trump administration. But administration officials said the case did not signal a policy change.
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, appearing on Fox News' "Happening Now," said "DACA enrollees are not being targeted," and that he didn't know why Montes was picked up.
The administration's focus is on removing people caught at the border, recent entrants and people who ran afoul of the law, Sessions said. However, he stopped short of saying that Dreamers were guaranteed protection.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said circumstances surrounding Montes were "being looked at" and that "the facts are not completely out yet."
Montes' situation came to light Tuesday when he sued the Trump administration in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego. The civil suit alleges that he had been wrongly deported to Mexico by officials who refused to tell him why.
The suit claims the government is in violation of the Freedom of Information Act because no records have been released on Montes' case, despite numerous requests, which is a violation of the statute. It asks the court to order the government to release those records.
His attorneys say Montes was detained by Border Patrol officials on Feb. 17 in Calexico and deported.
After the Department of Homeland Security issued its statement correcting Montes' DACA status and denying he had been deported, his attorneys reiterated their claim that he had been forcibly removed.
"Juan Manuel has been unequivocal in his assertion that he never voluntarily left the country while he had DACA. We believe him. We filed a [Freedom of Information Act] lawsuit to get answers. Rather than continue to provide half-truths and varying assertions, [Homeland Security] should respond to our request for documentation," said Nora A. Preciado, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center and co-counsel on the case.
The incident touched a nerve in the immigrant rights community and among Dreamers. An estimated 742,000 Dreamers live in the U.S., one-third of them in California.
The hashtag #justiceforjuan gained steam soon after news about Montes spread, touching off a rally in front of federal immigration offices in the nation's capital and an online petition to Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.
One point immigration officials and Montes attorneys agree on is that Border Patrol officials detained Montes on Feb. 19 as he tried to scale a fence back into the U.S. He was returned to Mexico.
Montes, who said he has lived in the U.S. since he was 9, has learning disabilities after suffering a traumatic brain injury when he was young. He did farm labor and studied welding at a community college before he was deported.
Officials said Wednesday that Montes had four criminal convictions — one for shoplifting and three for driving without a license. But those offenses are not serious enough to disqualify someone from DACA.
Montes was approved for the program in 2014 and received a renewal in 2016.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) praised immigration enforcement agents Tuesday on Twitter for removing Montes.
"First non-valedictorian DREAMer deported. Border Patrol, this one's for you," he tweeted with a photo of a beer mug and a link to a story by USA Today, which was first to report on Montes' case.
April 19, 10:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about Montes' lawsuit against the government.