A San Diego federal judge wants to expedite the case of a young "Dreamer" who claims to have been wrongfully removed to Mexico despite his protected status, with a trial that could happen in as little as six weeks.
Attorneys for Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez on Tuesday asked the judge for a preliminary injunction that would allow the 23-year-old to return lawfully to the United States while his lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection is adjudicated. But U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel said he still had several unanswered questions about Montes' claims and said he wants to put Montes and other witnesses on the stand and hear their testimony for himself before ruling.
Curiel's suggestion that he'd rather have an accelerated path to trial seemed to take both sides by surprise. The judge ordered the attorneys to meet over the next day to map out a time frame for discovery and witness availability and come back Wednesday afternoon to possibly set a trial date.
"It's obvious this court wants to get to the bottom of what happened," Monica Ramirez, one of Montes' attorneys, told reporters outside the courthouse.
She told the judge earlier that "we just want him back," adding that every day Montes is away from his family and support system in the United States "he is suffering irreparable harm."
Both sides agree that the crux of the case is what happened the night of Feb. 18. Montes claims he was taken by Border Patrol agents in Calexico and then forcibly removed to Mexico despite his valid status in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, whose beneficiaries are known as "Dreamers." Border authorities claim Montes is lying and entered Mexico of his own accord. The government claims there is no record of an encounter with Montes then.
In court documents leading up to the hearing, attorneys for both sides released new details surrounding the incident.
Montes, who suffers from cognitive disabilities, said in a sworn declaration that he worked in the fields in Imperial Valley on Feb. 18, went home to clean up, then had dinner at a friend's house in Calexico. He said he had tentative plans to then hang out with another friend that night and was walking to a taxi stand when a lone Border Patrol agent on a bicycle stopped him and asked for his identification.
He'd left his wallet in a friend's car, so he was taken in a patrol vehicle to a border station so his identity could be verified, Montes said. But Montes claims while at the station, it didn't appear that agents checked his identity or ran his fingerprints.
Montes said he doesn't recall if the agents asked about his DACA status.
He said he and others were driven to the port of entry around 1 a.m. Feb. 19 and told to cross into Mexico. He said he was not sure if he signed documents and didn't know why he was being kicked out of the country.
Montes got help from friends later that day who drove down his wallet and a suitcase. Later, on his way to hail a cab to go to a relative's house, Montes claims two men beat him and robbed him .
"After this attack, I was very scared. I did not know what to do," Montes wrote in his declaration. "I just wanted to be safe at home."
Montes said he made an impulsive decision to scale the border fence back into the U.S. on the evening of Feb. 19.
He was detained by Border Patrol and questioned, and again doesn't recall his DACA status being discussed. He said he signed documents, unsure of their contents, and was removed to Mexico on Feb. 20.
Federal authorities dispute ever coming into contact with Montes on Feb. 18, saying their first contact was when he was spotted coming over the fence. The government contends Montes was rightfully repatriated back to Mexico because DACA recipients are prohibited from crossing the border without permission. (Authorities originally falsely claimed to reporters that Montes was removed because his DACA status had expired.)
Attorneys for the government said Facebook messages seem to suggest Montes planned his return to the U.S.
Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott of the Border Patrol's El Centro sector said in a sworn declaration that Montes' story doesn't align with evidence. He said agents usually conduct bike patrols in pairs, not alone, and that all agents were assigned to patrol vehicles the night in question. He also said agents haven't repatriated any unauthorized immigrants past 10 p.m. this year.
The case has drawn national attention and is being closely watched by all sides of the immigration debate in light of the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration and the uncertainty over DACA's future.
It is also notable because President Trump and Curiel have a history, with Trump having criticized the judge on several occasions.
Curiel presided over two lawsuits regarding the now-defunct Trump University, and the then-presidential candidate called him a "hater" and questioned whether Trump's stand on immigration made Curiel biased in the case because of his "Mexican" heritage. Curiel was born in Indiana.
Curiel eventually approved a settlement, with Trump paying $25 million to end the lawsuits by students who said they were defrauded. Trump did not admit any wrongdoing.
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.