On the night of Thursday, Nov. 30, Patricia Miramontes sat in her apartment on the north side of Casper waiting for her phone to ring. The chaos of a single-parent household swirled around her.
Mauricio, Miramontes’ 11-year-old son by her ex-husband, chopped potatoes and sautéed beef for dinner. His 8-year-old sister, Hirleenda, gamely attempted to change the diaper of their half-sister, the baby Merci. And in a backroom of the small apartment was another member of the blended family — seventeen-year-old Julio Balderas Jr. He’s the son of Miramontes’ current partner — Merci’s father — from a previous relationship.
Julio Cesar Balderas, the 36-year-old Mexican man who ties this complicated structure together, waited in an immigration jail 280 miles away in Aurora, Colorado. His attempts to secure asylum in the United States had failed. Barring a last-minute legal miracle, Balderas awaited deportation to Mexico in the morning.
At home in Casper, Miramontes waited to hear from Balderas’ attorney, Roger Morales. While she waited, she talked about Balderas and how she loves him. The two met at a party in Gillette, in 2012. They had baby Merci together. In multiple interviews she fought back tears at the thought that he could end up back in Mexico. “He’s a good man,” she said.
To Miramontes, a “good man” meant in part a man who didn’t get in trouble with the law — not since they’d gotten together. But unlike Miramontes, and unlike the four children in the apartment, Balderas is not a U.S. citizen. Not only was his presence in the United States illegal, but he’d been deported before, in 2011. On that occasion he stayed in Juarez, Mexico only a few weeks before he snuck back over the border.
Since that act, Balderas hasn’t had legal problems, Miramontes said. If he got traffic tickets he paid them quickly to avoid further entanglements with officialdom, she said. Inquiries by WyoFile turned up no criminal record since 2011 for Balderas in either Campbell County, where he frequently worked, or Natrona County, where the family resided.
Miramontes is astounded her boyfriend would be a target for ICE. He worked construction and had a side business pouring cement for garages and foundations. He kept his head down. Then came the arrest on Oct. 2, followed by two months of attorneys’ fees and four-hour car rides to Aurora — where baby Merci reached for her father but touched only the glass that separated them in the prison visiting room.
At 7:30 pm, Miramontes’ phone sounded. It was a text message from Morales. He’d filed a motion to stop deportation, he wrote. “I am trying everything I can think of. Kitchen sink approach.”
Miramontes was suddenly cheerful.
“OK,” she said, smiling, “I like that.”
Miramontes — and women like her — exemplify the cascading consequences of an apparent immigration crackdown. In one swoop, federal agents reduced a striving, self-sufficient couple to a single mother dependant upon help from the state.
Together Balderas and Miramontes could pay for rent, daycare, groceries and bills. But since his detention she’s had to seek state childcare assistance so that she can work, she told WyoFile.
And reporting indicates that Miramontes’ is not the only Casper family divided by ICE.
“Driving while brown”
The following account of Balderas’ arrest is based on interviews with Julio Jr., Miramontes and Balderas. ICE did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this story, including specific questions about the arrest.
On Oct. 2, Julio Jr., a U.S. citizen and licensed driver drove his father to the bank in Miramontes’ Ford pickup truck. A wheelbarrow was in the truck bed. The two were planning to pick up a debit card for Julio Jr.’s new bank account.
Born in El Paso, Texas, Julio Jr. had been recently living in Juarez with his mother. He’d moved to Casper in July and enrolled in public school there.
A white truck started following them when they pulled out of their neighborhood and onto a main street. It was not marked, Julio Jr. said, and didn’t alarm them at first.
Julio Jr. and his father pulled into the parking lot at the Bank of the West, in downtown Casper. “I just arrived love,” Balderas wrote to Miramontes in a text message, in Spanish.
The white truck pulled in behind them. Two men in plain clothes, with ICE badges and guns on their hips, got out, approached the car and pulled Balderas out, his son said.
“They took him out without knocking on the door or anything,” Julio Jr. said. He asked the ICE officers to see the warrant his father’s arrest. They did not provide one.
Balderas was put in the ICE vehicle, he said. Two other men were already inside. They were Fernando Rojas-Moreno, age 56, and Jose Barcenas-Mendoza, age 20, according to inmate rosters published in the Casper Star-Tribune. Their ages and stories match Balderas’ recollection of who he was in the car with. Balderas also recognized a photo of Rojas-Moreno provided to him by WyoFile.
Unlike Balderas, the two men had not been picked up off the street. Rojas-Moreno pled guilty to delivery of cocaine charges in Casper in 2015. He was paroled from the Riverton Honor Farm into ICE custody for deportation the same day as Balderas’ arrest, a WDOC spokesman told WyoFile. Mendoza, meanwhile had been arrested in Gillette for a DUI. A judge had sentenced him to serve 30-days in the Campbell County Detention Center on Sept. 25, according to the Gillette News-Record. ICE officials picked him up from there, he told Balderas in the car.
Balderas felt like the odd man out. He and his family aren’t sure why he was picked up, how they knew his address, what car to look for, or even if they were looking for Balderas at all.
Balderas’ 2011 deportation came after an ex girlfriend called the police during a domestic dispute. According to a News-Record crime blotter at the time that matches Balderas’ age and recollection of the date (the News-Record does not publish names in its crime blotter) Balderas — 29 years old at the time — had pulled his 21-year-old ex girlfriend out of a car during an argument. Balderas told WyoFile the blotter account sounded like the correct incident, but denied that he had pulled the ex-girlfriend out of the car. They had an argument, but there was no physical violence, he said.
Miramontes knew about that chapter of Balderas’ past, she said, but since they met in 2012 he had been an excellent father figure for her own children, as well as to the couple’s child, Merci. Miramontes and Balderas had never had a physical dispute, she said.
When she arrived at the bank parking lot after hearing from Julio Jr., Miramontes asked the ICE officers why they’d arrested Balderas, she told WyoFile. The officers said they’d recognized Balderas while in the ICE vehicle, she said, which she does not believe. The family has its own opinions.
“They saw two Mexicans in a work truck and they wanted to pull them over,” Julio Jr. said.
Their attorney, Roger Morales, called it “driving while brown.”
Balderas spent two nights in jail in Casper, one night in jail in Wheatland and a few hours in Cheyenne’s jail before arriving in Aurora on Oct. 6.
The jail there is run for ICE by a private prison company, GEO. It has a capacity for 1,532 detainees, and was first accredited in 1989, according to the company’s website.
His family meanwhile, down a parent and an income, scrambled to stay afloat. Miramontes has been struggling to keep up both emotional and financial stability for her family, she said. The two-year-old Merci cries at times, particularly when she sees her mother cry. “She’ll wake up and kind of look for him … it’s super sad,” Miramontes said.
A bank teller by day, Miramontes has added tamale-seller to her resume since the arrest. A dozen tamales sold for twelve dollars, helping pay the lawyer and feed her four charges. The 11-year-old Mauricio helped too, he said, pushing tamales to his friends’ parents at school. Miramontes is also considering selling a car she is just a year short of paying for. Meanwhile, she’s getting assistance from the state to pay for childcare, so that she doesn’t lose her bank teller job.
“I hate being on government assistance,” Miramontes said. “I didn’t need it with another breadwinner.”
Julio Jr. is trying to help by stepping into his father’s shoes. He was initially devastated by his father’s arrest, Miramontes said. He’d moved to Casper to spend more time with his dad. But after just a few months the move to a northern state where he knew no one has backfired.
He had hoped to start school in the spring, he told WyoFile, get his high school diploma and perhaps move into a two-year college. Instead, he took over his father’s old construction job to help Miramontes keep the family afloat. For now education is on hold. “There are a lot of bills to pay,” he said.
One of those bills was from the attorney, Morales. Under his guidance, Balderas applied for asylum to stay in the U.S.
From 2011-2015 the city of Juarez saw a decline in homicides, but they picked back up in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of State. The city of around 1.3 million people saw 526 murders in 2016, the department wrote. A significant number of the murders are gang and drug cartel related.
Balderas and his son say the violence has touched them personally. Julio Jr. told WyoFile he fled Juarez after getting in a fight with cartel members. Members of Los Zetas cartel “jumped” his cousin, and Julio Jr. attempted to intervene, according to a letter detailing the story that Miramontes wrote for the attorney.
After that, Julio Jr. told WyoFile, “[Los Zetas] started looking for me. They wanted to kill me.” Los Zetas is one of the largest cartels operating in Mexico today, according to ICE.
If his father returns, he’ll get in similar trouble, Julio Jr. said. There is also the threat of extortion for someone recently deported, he said. Gangs assume the deportee has money from working in the U.S., or has loved ones north of the border who can afford to pay for their safety.
Balderas initial request for asylum was denied. His claim of fear of violence, though credible, doesn’t qualify under current law, authorities told him. Asylum in the U.S. is granted on evidence of persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to DHS. Fear of gang and cartel violence, which could be directed at any Mexican citizen, is a tough sell with immigration officials, Morales told WyoFile.
But he was still betting the specifics of Balderas’ case could win out. On Nov. 28, Miramontes and Julio Jr. drove to Aurora for a final attempt to convince a judge to overrule the asylum officer’s ruling.
The prison is housed, incongruously, in a neighborhood rife with hispanic influences. Immediately behind the facility is a strip mall with businesses that range from Taqueria El Valle to Taxes Latinos to a Centro de Nutrición. Bachata music at times drifts out from the taqueria’s outdoor dining area, and a small taco truck caters to hispanic, caucasian and African-American customers alike.
In the prison waiting room when Miramontes and Julio Jr. arrived, local Spanish-language newspapers littered the coffee tables. Families waited to see their loved ones while immigration attorneys bustled through security to meet with their clients. A sparsely furnished Federal courtroom operates inside the private prison.
Morales presented his client’s case to Judge Nina Carbone — previously an attorney with ICE’s Office of Chief Counsel. Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed Carbone as an immigration judge May 5, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.
Sessions appointed seven immigration judges that day. Six of them had previously worked for ICE, according to the press release.
Balderas’ hearing took less than 30 minutes. Through an interpreter, Carbone asked him if he’d understood his asylum officer during the interview, and had him recount his concerns for his safety. Balderas, who’d grown a bushy black beard and stopped shaving his head in custody, repeated his concerns about cartel reprisal and extortion.
The judge declined to overrule the asylum officer. Balderas was not part of a persecuted class of people, she said, and asylum could not be granted because of “generalized violence” in Juarez. The letter from Miramontes, along with one from Julio Jr. and his mother in Juarez, could not be submitted as evidence in what was simply a review of the asylum officer’s decision, the judge told Morales. Nor did she allow Julio Jr. to take the stand to testify.
After the hearing, Morales stood just inside the prison doors and told Miramontes he was not surprised by Carbone’s decision.
“The only way she was going to listen is if three guys who beat [Balderas’] ass wrote a notarized letter saying ‘yea, we beat his ass, and yea, we’re probably going to beat his ass again,’” Morales said.
He would try to find another avenue to stop the deportation, he told Miramontes. If he failed, Balderas would be deported on Friday, Dec. 1. It was Tuesday morning.
“What if they take you?”
Sitting in her kitchen the night of Thursday, Nov. 30, Miramontes did not feel optimistic. Instead, she thought about what she might do if Balderas was on his way to Mexico the next day.
The most likely possibility is that the family will leave Wyoming, Miramontes said. She has a relative in El Paso which abuts Juarez, separated only by the Rio Grande. She and the kids could then visit Balderas frequently. She hates to think about moving her children out of Casper, but believes it’s the right long-term choice for the family’s happiness and her own, she said.
With a child between Balderas and Miramontes, pursuing marriage could be a route to bring Balderas back legally, but it’s neither a short nor a cheap process, Miramontes said.
Morales had recommended it — “you’re invested” in Balderas, he told Miramontes outside the GEO prison, and her investment was his best chance for a legal return.
And if he goes, Morales said, “you’ve got to convince him to stay on the other side of that line.” Balderas has already been caught and deported twice — he could serve federal prison time in the U.S if he’s caught again.
“All his kids are here,” Miramontes responded. That Thursday night, she told WyoFile that despite the risk, if Balderas did want to cross she would consider sending him the money for a “coyote” to guide him.
Miramontes remembered lying in bed with Balderas shortly after Trump’s election. “I said ‘baby, what if they take you,’” she recalled. “I just had a feeling. This was the year.”
Not an isolated incident
Miramontes is not the only American mother in Casper with multiple children and a co-provider taken away recently by ICE. Agents have come up from Denver and left with other husbands and boyfriends as well.
Dalia Pedro, an immigration activist in Casper, says as deportations have increased, a pattern is developing and leaving a trail of broken homes. Out of five people detained in Casper in the last two weeks, at least two were men leaving families behind, Pedro said. The story continues to echo as an immigration crackdown appears to be expanding in Wyoming.
Not far from where Miramontes lives in Casper, on Nov. 29, Desiree Steadman watched her undocumented husband start his truck, come inside and kiss his kids goodbye. The couple have seven children, all U.S. citizens. After 16 years together, Steadman told WyoFile, they had just begun the process of using their marriage to gain legal residency for her husband, Efrain Silva-Romero. He had no felonies or misdemeanors, she said.
When Silva left for work that day, a neighbor watched a black van trail his GMC Sierra down an alleyway, Steadman said. The neighbor alerted Steadman, and she started calling Silva’s phone. He never answered. Later, they would find the GMC Sierra at the end of the road, but Silva was gone.
Steadman spoke with her husband a few times from the ICE detention center in Aurora, where he moved quickly through deportation proceedings. Nine days after his arrest, he was in an ICE processing center in New Mexico, waiting for the agency to have enough deportees together to fill a plane to Mexico.
“They’re in a database somehow,” Pedro said of the undocumented men without criminal records. “Now they’re being found and picked up and the women are left with their children.”
On Nov. 30, the husband of another Casper-area woman was taken by ICE agents on the way to his construction job. He was stopped by unmarked blue trucks two blocks from his house, he told his wife later. His wife is enrolled in the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival Act — which for now protects the children of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age. She asked WyoFile not to publish her name.
The couple have two preschool-aged daughters. The eldest has been depressed since her father’s arrest, her mother said. “She doesn’t want to play, she just wants to lie down and she barely eats,” her mother said.
Deportations doubled in Wyoming and Colorado from 2016 to 2017, according to a recent report from Wyoming Public Media. The two states are lumped together in ICE’s data collection.
Part of that increase in those states likely comes from ICE casting a broader net. ICE officials recently confirmed to Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen that they were expanding their arrest policies to include detaining anyone who is undocumented, including those without criminal records. “They basically just said that there are no protected classes any longer,” Whalen said. “I don’t know where this is headed.”
Thursday night passed without any further word about Balderas’ situation. On Friday morning, Dec. 1, Miramontes called the jail in Aurora. The phone rang, someone picked up, and then hung up, she said. It happened twice. On the third call someone answered, and told her Balderas had been deported.
Reached in Juarez by Facebook Messenger last week, Balderas told WyoFile he’d flown in an ICE plane that stopped in El Paso. Instead of being dropped off across the river at his destination, he was then flown to Nogales, Mexico. He was released there, nearly an eight-hour drive from Juarez. He had to borrow money for a bus ride.
After hearing Balderas had been deported on Friday, Miramontes didn’t hear from him until the morning of Sunday, Dec. 3. Finally she received word he had made it to Juarez safely. The news, she told WyoFile via text, was small consolation.
“I’m so sad,” she wrote.