YAKIMA, Wash. -- Galindo Nunez Garcia, 40, was driving to work Oct. 4 when he was cut off and forced to pull over by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers on Third Avenue near Walla Walla Street in Union Gap.

ICE sent him to a detention center in Tacoma, where he possibly faces deportation.

His wife, Teresa Flores, a U.S. citizen, is distraught. Without her husband’s support, Flores, 55, could no longer afford the house they were renting and is now staying with her sister-in-law in a small bungalow in Union Gap.

“He helped with everything,” she said. “If I had to go to the hospital, he’d take me. If I got sick, he’d take care of me. It’s really hard without him.”

Garcia is part of an increasing number of undocumented people in Yakima County and nationwide being caught in the net of ICE officers since President Donald Trump’s executive order, signed in January 2017, calling for increased immigration enforcement.  In the past, ICE officers only went after those who committed crimes, but Trump’s executive order targets anyone who is undocumented. A statewide court search revealed Garcia has no criminal history.

Local impact

Stepped-up ICE enforcement is being felt at the Yakima County jail, where the number of inmates being held on immigration violations shot up last year. Previously, the jail held anywhere from 50 to 90 inmates a month on immigration charges, but last year those numbers doubled and tripled.

A recent study by the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights  found the Yakima County jail with the highest rate — 0.48 percent per capita — of such inmates statewide. So far this year, the jail has housed 1,198 inmates suspected of immigration violations, the study said.

That number could have been higher if it weren’t for a pending federal case  prompting the jail in July 2017 to stop placing immigration holds on inmates arrested on local charges at the request of ICE officers. The case is challenging whether that practice is constitutional.

Under a federal contract, the jail houses such inmates brought to the facility by ICE officers.

The study’s findings don’t surprise attorney Alfredo Gonzalez Benitez of Columbia Legal Services, the group challenging the jail’s practice of placing ICE holds on local inmates. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project also is involved in the case.

“It kind of supports what we’ve been seeing regarding our clients and the community,” he said. “It’s really significant because it shows that many people have been arrested (for immigration violations) with no criminal convictions or minor charges.”

Detainment

It’s not clear whether ICE officers took Garcia to the county jail or directly to the Tacoma detention center, Flores said.

Garcia called her the day he was detained, and she went to ICE’s field office at 415 N. Third St. in Yakima to ask officers if they had a warrant.

“They said they weren’t going to answer any questions, and that they knew what I was trying to do,” Flores said.

She hasn’t been provided specifics about her husband’s case, including when he might be deported.

In April, she filed a petition for an alien relative, which started the process by which Garcia could become a U.S. citizen.

“I’m trying to do the best I can to help him stay here,” she said this week at her sister-in-law’s home. “I don’t know what they are holding him on. I called them four times yesterday and they don’t answer their phone. I’ve left messages on their answering machine and they don’t call back.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn’t return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Benitez said there are many factors that can complicate a case and leave someone in detention a long time.

“There’s people who hang out in detention centers for a year, sometimes more than a year,” he said. “It just really depends on the individual circumstances of an individual person’s case.”

A caring man

This isn’t the first time Garcia has faced immigration problems. He was deported in 2006, three years after coming here to work in the fields, Flores said.

A month later, he returned, at which time Flores met him at a dance. That was the start of a nearly 12-year relationship that led to their marriage in February.

Garcia continued to work in the fields or on construction jobs while Flores did laundry at a hospital.

“He established a good work history here,” she said.

Together they paid bills and he often helped her with her seven children, who are now all adults.

“When they needed money, he’d give it to them,” she said. “When my older children needed a place to stay, he’d let them stay with us.”

Tears welled in Flores’ eyes as she shared photos of Garcia. One showed him picking apples; another pictured him holding a bouquet of flowers next to Flores.

“That was his 39th birthday,” she said, pointing to the photo. “I gave him the flowers.”

On a kitchen table was their marriage certificate and a copy of the petition for an alien relative that cost them $535 to file with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“We were trying to make it the right way,” she said. “We had plans — we had plans to buy a house. When he got his papers, we were going to visit his mom in Mexico.”

She suspects ICE officers obtained information about Garcia from the petition.

“They say once you put your application in ... I don’t think they should have a right to do that,” she said.

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