In a scene becoming more common amid stricter immigration enforcement, supporters of a Kansas City, Kan., family man facing deportation gathered Tuesday to write letters seeking his release from jail.
Without advance notice, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detained construction worker Crecensio Mendez-Ramirez on Feb. 7 at one of his regular check-ins to ICE offices. He has lived with his family in the region for 12 years.
"Just the week before his check-in, his new work permit had come in," valid into December, said his wife Yasmine through an interpreter. "So, of course, I was surprised."
The youngest of their four children, U.S. citizen Kevin, is 6 — too young to understand deportation. So his family has been telling the boy that Dad's away working.
ICE spokesman Shawn Neudaurer said the agency has always put a higher priority on deporting offenders with serious criminal records. But increasingly undocumented residents with lesser or no criminal pasts — yet under longstanding orders of removal — are being detained.
And once arrested, "the law says you will maintain these people in custody," Neudaurer said.
Mendez-Ramirez, 44, is being held in the Morgan County Jail in central Missouri pending his removal to Mexico.
Immigration lawyer Jessica Piedra said Mendez-Ramirez was allowed to live and work in the U.S. the past eight years under orders of supervision. An immigration court in 2010 directed his removal after Mendez-Ramirez did not appear at a 2009 hearing.
Several area congregations have taken up the letter-writing campaign, which drew about 30 supporters to El Centro, Inc. The letters are being mailed to ICE's Chicago field office and the jail where Mendez-Ramirez is being held.
The Rev. Rick Behrens of KCK's Grandview Park Presbyterian Church said the arrest and detention resonate among the many immigrants who attend and live near his church. "It makes for a pretty dismal existence for them when these things happen.
"There are 11,000 undocumented immigrants in Wyandotte County," Behrens said. "You count all of their children and you're talking about a significant chunk of our population."
Piedra, who is not representing Mendez-Ramirez, said the case is similar to that of scientist Syed A. Jamal of Lawrence. Jamal, who has three children, was hours from being deported to his native Bangladesh when a Board of Immigration Appeals decision brought him back from a Hawaii detention center.
A federal judge earlier this month ordered Jamal's release pending a review of his case. Supporters of Mendez-Ramirez are hoping for a similar outcome.
"He is not a criminal," said Diana Yael Martinez of the local Advocates for Immigration Rights and Reconciliation, which hosted the letter-writing session. "Our taxpayers' resources are being wasted keeping him detained.
"That is not right. His family needs him."
Two of his four children are U.S. citizens. He is the family's sole breadwinner.
As in Jamal's case, supporters of Mendez-Ramirez have launched a Change.org petition drive and a GoFundMe site to raise funds for his legal defense. The 3,500 signatures and $1,800 so far raised are a tiny fraction of the outpouring of help for Jamal, which Piedra attributed to Mendez-Ramirez's friends and neighbors generally having fewer resources.
Piedra said Mendez-Ramirez reflects thousands of working people of modest means — mostly Hispanic — who are being rounded up without making headlines.
"We're watching families being torn apart and impacted," she said. "This no-mercy attitude is shocking to a lot of people."