Photo illustration by Getty, Sanchez family, Jorge Rivas/Fusion

A 67-year-old grandfather is demanding immigration officials apologize for wrongly detaining him and putting him in a van headed to Mexico, resulting in him being publicly smeared as a wife beater in the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper.

The story of Apolinar Sánchez Cornejo’s arrest made the front page of La Opinion earlier this month. The Los Angeles-based newspaper quoted an immigration official explaining Sánchez was facing deportation because he had a domestic violence conviction on his record.

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But the grandfather doesn’t have any conviction history. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials had the wrong guy.

Apolinar Sánchez Cornejo after he was released from ICE custody. He is still in his work uniform.
Courtesy of the Sánchez family

In documents obtained by Fusion, ICE officials admit “somehow, Mr. Sánchez’s case information became conflated with that of an individual who has the same first name, last name and date of birth.”

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“It is the other Apolinar Sánchez who had a prior conviction that originated with an arrest for domestic violence,” read a statement sent to La Opinion by an ICE spokesperson. The paper removed the incorrect information from the online version of its story but has not issued a correction. When reached by Fusion on Friday, an editor said a correction would be published tomorrow.

On the morning Sánchez was detained, his wife Vicky heard him screaming for help as four ICE vans pulled up in front of their home in southeast Los Angeles. It was seven in the morning and Sánchez was outside on his way to work.

He was about 130 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border when the van that was transporting him back to Mexico stopped in Santa Ana, California, Sánchez said. He was told he would be released with permission to stay in the U.S. for 30 days. He has a hearing in Los Angeles later this month that will decide whether he’s allowed to stay in the U.S. or not.

“What they say is a lie!” Vicky, 63, wrote in a statement sent to ICE obtained by Fusion. “We have lived together 45 years and I have never been mistreated. We get along well. That’s why when ICE took him, I felt like my heart ripped out and I felt helpless,” she wrote.

Sánchez and his wife came to the U.S. in 1992 on a tourist visa. They overstayed their visa and have been in the U.S. since.

Apolinar Sánchez Cornejo has been in the U.S. since 1992.
Courtesy of the Sánchez family

Sánchez’s family believes the van suddenly stopped in Santa Ana because of the public pressure quickly stirred up by his granddaughter, an immigrant-rights activist. (ICE declined to comment on why the van stopped.)

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“They keep deporting people and they keep on making their own memos. There’s no one to hold them accountable so we have to hold them accountable,” his granddaughter Yadira Sánchez told Fusion.

“They really don’t care if they make mistakes. They’re careless,” she said.

Yadira Sánchez is a community organizer with the immigrant rights group East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition. The morning her grandfather was detained she alerted her network. That same day, they started a petition that same day, developed the hashtag #FreeAbuelito (“Free Grandpa”) and launched a telephone campaign to pressure ICE to release Apolinar Sánchez. Supporters learned about “Abuelito Poly” (his nickname, short for Apolinar) online and made so many phone calls that they filled the voicemails of ICE’s local field office, according to Sánchez.

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ICE officials told Fusion the agency has now updated its databases “to ensure this doesn’t happen to Mr. Sánchez again.” The agency didn’t say how it would prevent this from happening to others.

Olga Tomchin, the attorney representing the Sánchez family regarding detention conditions, says the family is demanding ICE director Sarah Saldaña personally apologize to them for the trauma of this experience, offer a thorough explanation, and provide a plan to make sure these kinds of incidents don't happen again.

The incident “terrified” the family, said Tomchin, an attorney with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. Tomchin says she has another client in San Francisco accused of convictions for crimes he never committed.

ICE “cannot be trusted,” she said.

Apolinar Sánchez Cornejo, 67, was mistakenly arrested on September 23rd and came close to being deported to Mexico.
Courtesy of the Sánchez family

In a statement to La Opinion, an ICE spokesperson said her original statements about Sanchez’s record were made in good faith based on the information she had at the time.

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It’s unclear how many people ICE wrongly detains each day. The closest estimates available are from a Northwestern University study that analyzed another group of people ICE has misidentified and detained despite not having the jurisdiction to do so: U.S.-born citizens. In the study, Northwestern professor Jacqueline Stevens concluded that on any given day roughly 1% of ICE detainees are U.S. citizens. ICE detains over 33,000 detainees each day, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.