Fighting to stay: Music teacher detained by Border Patrol challenges narrative

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GRANT COUNTY — When Miguel’s father, a field laborer who was once a firefighter-paramedic and had worked with the Red Cross, and Miguel’s mother, a subsistence farmer whose family fed themselves with what they could grow, crossed their family into California illegally in search of stable work, Miguel was 3 years old.

Miguel, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, was four when he moved with his parents to Grant County, where his father and mother found work in the apple orchards. Even in preschool, the transition was tough for Miguel. His family had little and lived in a small apartment. Miguel was unable to speak English in what was at the time a predominantly white school district, and he found himself the target of bullying.

But things turned around for Miguel when he joined the elementary school’s concert band in first grade as a percussionist. Throughout elementary school, Miguel played drums, banged gongs and tapped at marimbas for concerts in the park, parades, and to commemorate the end of school years. In those early days, Miguel recalls, they played a lot of older Disney tunes: themes to Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Bambi.

Setting the pace

By the end of middle school, Miguel had transitioned to marching band. The military-esque discipline appealed to him, he said, and though he still faced bullying, he had found his crowd. Being able to perform in a neatly-uniformed group was gratifying, Miguel said.

“I was able to show the community that every individual can be part of the group, and if there’s that respect, and there’s that professionalism, then we can get something good out of it,” Miguel said.

With support from his school’s band director, a mentor to Miguel, he became the marching band’s drum major, waving his white-gloved hands to a steady beat to keep the band in time. On weekends he would work the orchards, filling sacks with apples.

Miguel’s aunt was able to sponsor him for a work permit, helping him to get the documentation he needed to attend college. Shortly thereafter, the Obama administration implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allowing Miguel to attend school without fear of deportation. For extra cash, he began selling sheet music he wrote on the side.

A few years later, he graduated from Central Washington University with his music education degree and found a job working in a Grant County school district as a band director, a position of authority from which Miguel had received so much guidance as a kid. He introduced marching band into the curriculum and brought his kids, a majority of whom were Hispanic, to the first band competition they had ever attended, where they won first in their division.

Then, Miguel’s DACA renewal was denied.

The nightmare begins

His teaching career was derailed. Once DACA renewals are denied, there is no appeal unless the controlling agency made a clerical mistake. Though he said he wasn’t told as much at the time, Miguel later came to believe the application had been denied because he was facing a misdemeanor assault charge.

Miguel had been charged in 2017 after he intervened in an altercation between his sister and brother-in-law. Miguel said his brother-in-law was abusive to his sister, and one day had rushed out of the family home with their baby when Miguel’s sister, pregnant with her second child, ran to stop him.

Police logs show the brother-in-law’s and sister’s accounts differ, but both agreed that Miguel’s sister had been trying to get her baby out of the car when the father moved the car, knocking the mother to the ground and running over her foot. Seeing this, Miguel put his brother-in-law into a chokehold while his mother retrieved her grandchild, police logs show. The brother-in-law called police, who booked Miguel for fourth-degree domestic violence assault.

Without DACA status and no way to appeal, Miguel could no longer work as a band director, and he returned to the fields to find work. By 2018, Miguel married a childhood friend he had recently reconnected with, and they began a family together.

While waiting for his child to be born, he attended court hearings, fighting the charges. It was at one of those hearings, as he walked out of Grant County District Court with his wife, that Miguel heard two men in sweatshirts and jeans call out his name and flash a badge.

“Border patrol, come with us,” Miguel recalled them saying.

Miguel was detained.

‘You’re no one in there’

Immigration arrests on courthouse steps have become more common following the Trump administration’s 2017 executive order that significantly increased the number of immigration law enforcement officials, said Bill Kingsford, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Spokane sector. Following a string of these incidents in Grant County, County Prosecutor Garth Dano responded to complaints from immigrant rights activists, saying that the type of undocumented immigrant being detained was relatively limited.

“They have been coming here to the courthouse probably for about the last year and a half, looking for, specifically, undocumented people who have been found guilty of felony convictions or who have been previously deported,” Dano said in a recent interview with iFiberOne News.

Miguel was not convicted of any crime, was not facing felony charges, and had never been deported before. After eventually making bond from the immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Miguel would discover that even the misdemeanor charge against him had been dropped by Dano’s office, court documents show.

It was too late. He was taken from a Grant County courthouse to Spokane, then to Yakima, where he claims he saw someone get stabbed and he was denied medication for pain caused by a drunk driver that had slammed into him days earlier, he said. The cells reminded him of dog kennels.

“You’re no one in there,” Miguel said.

Miguel was eventually brought to a detention center in Tacoma, where he said he was one of the lucky few that were able to make bail.

Keeping up the fight

Today, Miguel is waiting to go before an immigration judge this summer, where he hopes to explain his case and be allowed to remain in the country with his wife and child, both of whom are U.S. citizens. Miguel said he doesn’t begrudge border patrol agents doing their job, but questions the tactics that swept him up.

“I feel that if someone is found guilty, like Garth Dano stated in that video, then they should be arrested, and then they can be picked up from jail instead of the courthouse,” Miguel said. “But I was never found guilty, or even tried.”

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