Jose Luis Gomez Castor, a New Orleans construction worker, has successfully avoided deportation since he was arrested in an immigration sting in 2011. Even after he was ordered to leave the country in 2015, he was allowed to stay because the Obama administration considered him a low priority.
Wednesday morning, weeks into a new presidency, he walked into the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office wondering if his luck had run out.
Several hours later, he emerged — free to remain in the U.S., at least for now.
A group led by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an immigrant rights group, staged a rally in front of the building in the Central Business District as they waited to learn Gomez Castor’s fate.
The protesters marched in front of the building chanting, “Sin papeles, sin miedo” (“no papers, no fear”) and “Not one more deportation.”
Just after noon, Gomez Castor walked outside and thanked his supporters.
“Don’t let them stomp on you. Don’t let them separate you from your family,” he said before leading the group in a chant of support for immigrant rights.
Gomez Castor, who on legal advice declined to name his country of origin, has no criminal record, according to his lawyers. So under the Obama administration’s immigration policies, which focused on serious or violent criminals, he was a low priority for deportation.
But President Donald Trump is taking a harder stance, arguing that people in the country illegally pose a danger to the nation’s security. Now, all immigrants who have received a deportation order are considered high priorities to be sent home.
Gomez Castor, who has lived in New Orleans since 2005, is a member of the Southern 32, a group of immigrant workers who have advocated for immigration reform with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
He was arrested in 2011 by immigration agents near the Lowe’s home-improvement store on Elysian Fields Avenue, a common spot for day laborers to wait for work.
An agent drove up posing as a contractor looking for workers, according to a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Gomez Castor got into the pickup truck with two others. He soon found himself being interrogated.
According to the Workers Center for Racial Justice, there was no reason to detain him other than the fact that he is Latino.
Sima Atri, a member of his legal team and a staff attorney for the Workers’ Center, said his prosecution was “based on evidence gathered from an illegal arrest based on racial profiling.”
A spokesman for the New Orleans Field Office of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on his case, citing ongoing litigation.
In an interview at the Workers Center office Wednesday morning, Gomez Castor said through a translator, “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just looking for work.”
The group filed a civil rights complaint on his behalf in 2011.
In the years after Gomez Castor was arrested, his case wound through immigration court and appeals. He lost.
In December, he received word that he would be granted relief through prosecutorial discretion, in which the immigrations agency places higher priorities on some cases and defers others.
But in early February, shortly after Trump took office, he was ordered to turn himself in for deportation by today.
Similar cases have popped up around the country, including one this week in Mississippi and another last month in Washington state.
Wednesday, the agency agreed not to arrest Gomez Castor because of a motion the Workers’ Center filed today with the Board of Immigration Appeals to reconsider an earlier, unsuccessful appeal of his deportation order, said Anne Recinos, a member of his legal team.
While that’s in process, Recinos said, “They will not enforce the deportation order.”
In a brief interview before heading downtown to turn himself in, Gomez Castor said he felt confident that the meeting with immigration agents would not end with his deportation.
“I feel good because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. Still, he added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
In a March 6 letter asking Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to renew discretionary relief, lawyers for the Workers’ Center wrote that his work as a labor organizer is one reason he should be granted discretion.
They also pointed out that he had been pursuing a civil rights complaint against the agency because of his 2011 arrest. Under Obama-era policies, immigrants pursuing “legitimate civil rights complaints” were given special consideration for prosecutorial relief.
That complaint describes Gomez Castor’s arrest. After he got into the pickup truck at Lowe’s, the agent drove around the corner and met up with two more agents. They started to interrogate him.
Gomez Castor invoked his right to remain silent, handing the agents a card that identified him as a member of the Congress of Day Laborers, a group affiliated with the Workers’ Center.
The card reads, “I am giving you this card because I do not wish to speak to you or have any further contact with you. If I am free to go, please communicate that I have permission to leave.”
Instead, the agents arrested him, his lawyers alleged in the complaint.
The appeal filed this week expands on that complaint, alleging that the agents “punched, kicked and beat” Gomez Castor, searched him without his consent, and threatened him with violence when he asked for documents to be translated into Spanish.
“These events are striking for the complete and utter lack of legitimate, articulable reasons for Mr. Jose Luis Gomez Castor’s arrest,” the lawyers wrote in the complaint.
Gomez Castor, they wrote, “appears to have been arrested because he was a Latino man standing on a corner or because, after being detained, he identified himself as a member of the Congress of Day Laborers.”
Atri, his lawyer, said the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office is still investigating the complaint.
Asked about the December letter granting relief through prosecutorial discretion, Gomez Castor said, “I don’t know why they revoked it.”
Neither did the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, a minister at Community Church Unitarian Universalist in Lakeview. In 2011, the Workers’ Center asked him to post an immigration bond for Gomez Castor to free him while his case was pending. VanderWeele agreed.
In the six years since, he has not had any contact with Gomez Castor.
Last month, VanderWeele received a registered letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement telling him to deliver Gomez Castor by today. When he spoke to The Lens in February, he said he didn’t even know how to contact him.
“As far as I can tell, this is part of the national program to send Hispanic people back to the countries where they’re from,” VanderWeele said.
Picking up on one of Trump’s expressions, he continued, “This is guided by the impression that some people are ‘bad hombres’ just because of the color of their skin.”
Thomas Byrd, the local spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he couldn’t speak about Gomez Castor’s case. In general, he said, the agency’s mission is pretty straightforward.
“At the end of the day,” Byrd said, “we’re charged with removing the people who are here illegally. Once they get their final stuff with the BIA [Board of Immigration Appeals], we’re going ahead.”