The Wrongful Imprisonment of Jose Luis Garcia
Arleta, CA - Early on the morning of June 10, Jose Luis Garcia stepped outside of his Arleta home to water his lawn and finish his coffee. Sunday was his day off from his job at a factory for aerospace parts, so the 62-year-old grandfather was going to drive for Uber for a few hours and then spend the afternoon with his family.
It was then that unmarked police vehicles moved in from observation positions on the street that had likely been orchestrated during the preceding days. They moved quickly to subdue Jose, placing him in handcuffs within moments.
“I remember waking up to his screams,” recalls his daughter Natalie. “He was yelling my name and I could not understand why. When I came outside and saw him in handcuffs I knew there had to have been some sort of mistake.” She pleaded with agents to know why her father, a green card holder and legal permanent resident, was being taken, but was not given answers. Perhaps he was mistaken for someone else, she thought. After all, “Jose Garcia” was such a common name.
But this was no mistake. Jose’s arrest was part of a coordinated, three-day Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation that targeted public safety threats in the Los Angeles area. His was just one of hundreds of such arrests in Los Angeles in 2018 and thousands of arrests around the country, part of a trend in Trump administration policy towards rounding up legal and illegal non-citizens of the United States who have criminal records.
The idea behind the initiative is to prioritize the most dangerous criminals for swift deportation, something that can easily be done to most non-citizens throughout the country who have any criminal past. Trump talked tough on the campaign trail, promising to deport MS-13 and other hardened gang members. This is a move that many Americans would support but is incredibly difficult to put into practice.
Imagine the man power, equipment, and funding required to track down, surveil, and apprehend a dangerous, potentially armed gang member who knows that their immigration status will make them a target for deportation. Despite budget increases from the Trump administration, many claim that ICE is overstretched, and those same assets can instead target several non-citizens with any criminal record in their pasts, men and women who have been paying taxes and whose addresses can easily be found and observed.
Critics of the new policies say that in a supposed effort to round up dangerous criminals and gang members, hundreds of low-priority immigrants are being swept up by ICE agents because they take fewer resources to arrest and deport. In fiscal year 2018, ICE arrested 105,140 immigrants who were convicted criminals, though advocates accuse ICE of inflating statistics about criminals by including minor charges.
Jose’s crime had been a screaming match with his wife that had ended when neighbors called the police. Today, his wife describes the fight as a minor dispute, something the two worked through in anger management classes and have since nearly forgotten. At the time, the family had decided that Jose should take a plea deal and spend three weeks in jail so they could all put the matter behind them.
But 2001 was politically a very different time than 2018, especially for someone like Jose. Many lawyers argue that a guilty plea deal two decades ago cannot fairly be held against a non-citizen today who never could have foreseen the era of Trump and the multitude of immigration crackdowns over last ten years.
This argument pulls on the illegality of ex post facto laws laid out in Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution. The spirit of this restriction is to prevent laws that criminalize or aggravate the punishment for a deed after it has been done.
Jose’s designation as a public safety threat and the dubious constitutionality of this new deportation prioritization policy call into question the motivations of the current administration. Ostensibly, this is how a grandfather nearing retirement age who still works three jobs can be deemed a public safety threat for a conviction from 2001.
Jose’s absence immediately left a hole in the Garcia’s home. Two of his children who live in the household, Natalie and Luis, struggled to cope with the loss of their father. His wife Delores, also a legal permanent resident, feared for her own status as an immigrant, and the whole family worried about retaliation for vocalizing their story. For the duration of Jose’s imprisonment, the family locked their doors and shuttered their windows, not knowing if ICE officials might come for Delores next.
Of all of Jose’s family members, his granddaughter Marley may have taken this loss the hardest. She also lives at home with her mother Natalie and Jose has become her closest, most consistent father figure. He drives her to school and takes her out for burgers and tacos. She calls him “Dad.”
Marley could not understand why her grandfather was taken. Each night after his arrest, she played with his things, smelled his cologne, and demanded that she be allowed to sleep in his bed
Some nights, Marley laid out a full outfit for Jose with help from her mother, and the two would imagine he were falling asleep there instead of in a detention facility over an hour away.
Jose says he spent most of his time in the facility praying, along with many of the other inmates.
“Everybody was crying there,” Jose recalled. “I see these guys when I walk by, tears just falling from their eyes. Everyone was thinking about their families or what’s going to happen.”
In the days following her father’s arrest, Natalie Garcia sprang into action. As an account executive at a public relations firm in Hollywood, she mobilized friends in media and worked tirelessly to publicize her father’s case. Within a week she was pleading her family’s case to a national audience on CNN.
“He’s a green card holder, he’s a legal permanent resident,” she explained to CNN’s Ivan Watson. “He’s been here for 50 years. He’s paid his taxes. He’s a home owner. He’s been here. He has nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren—he takes care of my daughter. His (other) grandchild is active military deployed in Germany right now. He’s distraught as well.”
The story was also picked up by dozens of local and national outlets. One day after her father’s arrest, Natalie had already made a Twitter page for updates. For weeks during and months following Jose’s imprisonment, the page “Free Jose Luis Garcia” shared details of the case and the plight of other immigrants across the country.
When Natalie spoke to her father over the phone or visited him at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, he downplayed many of his own struggles. Instead, he told her of all the other men locked up with him awaiting deportation, many of whom had no one on the outside advocating for them. Natalie soon began assisting the wives of several of these men to secure legal representation and carpool on jail visits.
On one such visit, Natalie decided to bring Marley to see her grandfather for the first time in two weeks. In a tight visitation corridor filled with dozens of other families, the two took turns speaking to Jose through a single phone receiver.
In a 30 minute visit, they caught up on a week’s worth of missed events since the previous weekend--Marley’s graduation from kindergarten and the family’s efforts to advocate for his case.
“I always try to be there for her anywhere and everywhere,” Jose said of his granddaughter. “I missed her graduation, and I can’t take that back. Those moments are gone already.”
Jose wept throughout, unable to contain his hurt and openly embarrassed to be seen by his daughter and granddaughter while wearing a neon green jumpsuit designated for immigration detainees. All three touched their hands to the smudged glass and held them still before saying their goodbyes.
After leaving the jail, Marley finally broke down in her mothers arms. “I miss him, mommy. I miss him,” she said repeatedly before Natalie scooped up her child and carried her to the car.
“My whole life I have looked up to my dad and gone to him for everything,” Natalie said after the visit. “It’s so hard to see him like this, but I know he wants me to fight for him.
After 19 days of imprisonment, a court date had arrived to determine the schedule of Jose’s deportation proceedings, a process that could take up to months or a year. By this time, however, public pressure and media attention had changed Jose’s case in a way that little else can. A whole community of voices--friends, family members, coworkers, Jose’s Uber riders, Marley’s teachers, and immigration activists--had all come out in support of this working grandfather’s release.
As the facts of the case against Jose were made public, one main piece of information dominated the headlines. A legal permanent resident was being targeted for deportation for a crime from 17 years prior.
U.S. citizens can typically put a misdemeanor crime behind them. Meanwhile, Jose, who could have applied for citizenship after five years of holding a green card but had held back from attempting to become a naturalized citizen due to financial cost, was not so fortunate.
Whether his arrest had been a technical oversight or a perfect example of unchecked overreach by an agency under political pressure, it had struck a nerve in Los Angeles. Days before the hearing, prosecuting attorneys contacted Garcia’s legal representation explaining that “they hoped this case could go away quiet,” according to a member of the legal team who wished not to be named.
To a small immigration courtroom in downtown L.A. packed with family, supporters, and press, Jose apologized for his past crime and declared his wish to apply for U.S. citizenship.
The judge cancelled the deportation proceedings and threw out the case against Jose Luis Garcia.
Where ICE had arguably failed in their targeted arrest of Jose, the public and the news media had stepped in to right a wrong. But his case is an anomaly, unprecedented for being thrown out even before the hearings were scheduled. The system made a mistake and then it was corrected.
But does this always work? Without a committed family, a daughter like Natalie, and a news media hungry for stories on immigration, would Jose’s case still have been dropped? Even if it had, how long would he have languished in an Orange County jail? Would he have been granted bond and allowed to continue working his three jobs? What happens to the men and women more vulnerable even than Jose?
The story of the wrongful imprisonment of Jose Luis Garcia is one of warning. A cautionary tale for a country quick to scapegoat. Despite the trauma of his imprisonment and the constant nightmares of imagined deportations, he remains positive and says that achieving his full citizenship is his number one priority. “I will continue to do the right things with my family and I will become a U.S. citizen in no time.”