The sinking feeling that something was amiss didn’t hit Jesus Arreola Robles until just before midnight, right after he drove past a U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck in the desert near the border.
A few minutes later, immigration officers handcuffed the 22-year-old North Hollywood resident and beneficiary of the Obama administration’s immigration relief program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. They accused him of trying to smuggle someone into the country illegally.
But Arreola Robles’ recounting of the chain of events that led to his arrest — and possible deportation — on Feb. 12 is even stranger than the Border Patrol’s version.
And he hopes it clears him.
Border Patrol officials said Arreola Robles and a 17-year-old boy were stopped in a vehicle on Highway 94 in Campo, Calif., about a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border. Arreola Robles was driving, they said.
In an interview this week with The Times, Arreola Robles, out on bond, said he thought he was picking up a passenger for a ride share, not helping to smuggle anyone.
He said the teenage passenger, who ended up being deported, was to blame for his predicament.
According to Arreola Robles’ telling, he was babysitting his three younger sisters the night before around 7:30 p.m. when he got a call from a friend saying his cousin needed a ride that night from Sun Valley to the San Diego area and back. Arreola Robles said he often picked up his friends, who knew he drove for Uber and Lyft, for off-the-books rides. They settled for a price Arreola Robles said he considered fair: $600 in cash.
Arreola Robles had never met the cousin, a 17-year-old named Luis. The teen told Arreola Robles that he needed to pick up his uncle and cousin at a house near San Diego. Border Patrol officials confirmed that Luis is the teen’s middle name.
Luis put the address into the GPS on Arreola Robles’ phone and they set off in his 2014 Toyota Camry.
During the trip, Arreola Robles said the teen told him that he had been in the country for only three weeks. At one point, Luis said his cellphone wasn’t working and asked if he could borrow Arreola Robles’ phone. He made a couple of calls, but no one picked up and he didn’t leave a voicemail, Arreola Robles said.
The pair drove more than three and a half hours until they were in the desert. When they passed a parked Border Patrol truck, Arreola Robles said he thought to himself, “Alright, this is sketchy.”
Shortly after, he said Luis told him they had arrived and to pull over to the side of the road. In the dark, Arreola Robles could make out the shadow of a person. Luis got out of the car and walked toward the figure.
It was a Border Patrol agent.
From inside the car, Arreola Robles heard the agent ask Luis, “What are you doing here?” Luis turned and pointed to the car.
The agent walked up to Arreola Robles and asked the same question. Arreola Robles said Luis had asked him for a ride.
In Spanish, the agent asked Luis where he had been picked up. Luis said, “Here, near El Cajon.”
The agent asked Arreola Robles, “How many more?” He responded, “I don’t know, what are you talking about?”
With that, the agent placed both of them in handcuffs and put them in the back of his truck. They didn’t speak. Arreola Robles said he was furious at the teenager.
Still, Arreola Robles said he remained calm, assuming the situation would quickly be cleared up. It wasn’t until the next morning, after he had given his statement to immigration officers and was asked to sign papers agreeing to appear before a judge, that he realized he wouldn’t be getting out anytime soon. He said the officers never asked him outright whether he was attempting to smuggle someone into the country.
“I lost everything,” he said. “And I never got paid.”
Arreola Robles was transferred to another detention facility in San Diego, then to one in Arizona, and finally to one in Folkston, Ga. He was released March 3 on a $2,500 bond.
Border Patrol officials said Luis requested and received a voluntary return to Mexico.
Arreola Robles’ attorney, Joe Porta, said Border Patrol documents lack details and contain inconsistencies. He said the Border Patrol’s accusation is based on the unverified statement of a deported witness and that he will seek to exclude the statement.
Porta said the Border Patrol stated in the documents that they apprehended a group of four people near Arreola Robles and Luis, and that one person had “positive cellular communication” linking them to Arreola Robles’ phone.
The Border Patrol did not respond to a request for confirmation.
Porta said he still wonders how the teenager came up with the address that he plugged into the GPS of his client’s car. Arreola Robles said he can only assume that Luis walked up to the Border Patrol agent because he thought the agent was his uncle.
But he said he’s not sure why the teenager would lie to the agent about where he was picked up.
“He has no papers, he’s 17, he’s a minor and he just got caught near the border,” Porta said. “In my experience doing this for years, when people get caught they just panic and they just blurt something out, because they’re really afraid and they think it’s what [the agents] want to hear. But the true answer to why he said that, I don’t know.”
Arreola Robles’ parents brought him into the United States illegally from their native Mexico when he was a year old. He had a work permit under President Obama’s DACA program since 2012.
The executive action halts the deportation of people who were brought to the United States as children and remained illegally. Beneficiaries must meet certain requirements, including having never been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or multiple misdemeanors, and not posing a threat to public safety or national security.
Arreola Robles’ only prior offense was a speeding ticket.
He worked two jobs using his work permit, at the salad bar in West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont Hotel and as a driver. He paid half the rent at his family’s home and said he helps care for his severely disabled 16-year-old sister.
His other sisters are 12 and 7. All three are U.S. citizens.
Immigration agents confiscated his car and phone. He’s still making payments on the car. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informed him on March 1 that his DACA status had been rescinded.
Porta thinks Arreola Robles has a strong case. He said the judge said he found Arreola Robles to be credible.
He also said the judge set bond at $2,500, which Porta said, in his experience, is significantly lower than usual for apprehensions near the border. He said the minimum bond a judge can set is $1,500.
Porta said he expects Arreola Robles’ next hearing to take place within two to four months. He plans to file for a cancellation of Arreola Robles’ removal based on the hardship that his parents, who are legal residents, would suffer if he could no longer help care for his disabled sister.
If Porta succeeds and his client is cleared, Arreola Robles could go from getting arrested to getting a green card.
An earlier version of this story said Arreola Robles thought he was picking up an Uber passenger. He thought he was picking up an off-the-books passenger.