An immigration appeals court Monday granted a last-ditch reprieve to a man whose arrest and looming deportation have made him a cause célèbre in the country's roiling debate over illegal immigration.
Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, 49, was arrested in February in Los Angeles by immigration officers moments after he dropped one of his four daughters off at school. Another of the girls who was in the car at the time recorded a video of the arrest.
The video, and Avelica-Gonzalez's story of working and raising a family during more than two decades in the United States, drew national headlines and was held aloft by critics of President Trump's aggressive stance on illegal immigration as an example of how the government's deportation policies were too sweeping.
Faced with the possibility that he would be removed from the country immediately because of an outstanding deportation order issued previously by an immigration judge, lawyers for Avelica-Gonzalez filed at the time an emergency stay of removal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which temporarily spared him from deportation.
The court reviewed the case and declined to make the stay permanent, putting Avelica-Gonzalez at risk of being deported to Mexico as early as Monday.
But the Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest administrative body in the country's immigration court system, stepped in, granting a request from Avelica-Gonzalez's attorney for another emergency stay of removal. The decision prevents his deportation while the board reviews Avelica-Gonzalez's case.
Alan Diamante, Avelica-Gonzalez's attorney, said he has asked the board to send the case back down to an immigration judge in order to reconsider whether a deportation order should have ever been issued.
Diamante said in previous immigration proceedings that a judge issued the order after deciding Avelica-Gonzalez was ineligible to remain in the country because of a 1998 conviction for receiving stolen car tags. The decision came at a time when immigration laws on these types of cases were in flux, and subsequent changes to the law made clear Avelica-Gonzalez should have been eligible to remain, Diamante said.
In June, Avelica-Gonzalez made plea deals to vacate the 1998 conviction and a 2008 conviction for driving under the influence. His lawyers had hoped that with the changes to his criminal record, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would grant his release and cancel his deportation order. That didn't occur.
Since his arrest, Avelica-Gonzalez and his wife have also applied for a special type of immigrant visa reserved for victims of violent crimes, according to Diamante. He declined to discuss details of the crime, citing the couple's privacy and a possible ongoing police investigation.
Avelica-Gonzalez has been in the United States illegally for more than 25 years, raising his daughters with his wife in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, where he also worked as a cook at a restaurant.
"I don't even want to think that they'll deport me. What would I do with half my heart and mind in another place? Half here, half there," he said in an earlier interview of the possibility of having to restart his life in Mexico.
Avelica-Gonzalez is being held at the Adelanto Detention Facility near Victorville. A hearing on whether to grant him bail pending a decision by the appeals board is set for Aug. 30, Diamante said.
The case has crystallized the fierce debate over the Trump administration's policies on immigration, which did away with the previous administration's focus on deporting serious criminals and put nearly all of the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally at risk of being deported.
Supporters of the president's hard-line approach emphasize that immigrants like Avelica-Gonzalez broke the law by coming to the country illegally and further undermined any claim to live in the U.S. when they committed crimes, however minor.
Immigration advocates, meanwhile, have assailed the president's calls for mass, indiscriminate deportations not only as unrealistic but harmful to the country's economy, which relies on immigrant labor. Moreover, advocates have highlighted how the government's polices stand to break up an untold number of families like Avelica-Gonzalez's, whose American-born children are citizens.
Avelica-Gonzalez's detention has drawn reaction from local officials. In a March 15 letter to the Los Angeles field office director for ICE, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said: "I have consistently expressed my opposition to an enforcement approach that expends limited resources on operations that divide families with little or no public safety benefit."
And in a statement Monday, Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo said, "We are still hopeful that Romulo will be released, as he is a productive member of our community and the sole breadwinner for his family. His deportation would be detrimental to his family and unnerving to the entire community. We remain united and await his return home with his family where he belongs."
4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about Avelica-Gonzalez's case, comments from his attorney and a statement from Councilman Gil Cedillo.