A Mexican man facing deportation for a 2010 drunken driving arrest has found an unlikely group of supporters in a small Ohio town that's backing Donald Trump for president.
Marcos Piñon Hernandez, the father of four U.S. citizens, is in government custody and faces imminent deportation—possibly as soon as today. But the mostly white and conservative residents of Madison, Ohio are coming to Piñon's defense, calling him a pillar of the community and demanding his release.
“[He's] an amazing father; he's a hardworking man and I think his deportation is completely unjust,” says Walter Alley, who coached Piñon's son in youth football and is now rallying the town to come to the defense of one of its few minority residents.
Piñon came to the United States from Mexico in 1998, and has since raised three U.S.-born children in Madison, less than an hour down the road from where the Republican National Convention will be held next month.
Local residents and town leaders say the Piñon family has become as much a part of the community as any other in Madison. His oldest son plays football, and the daughter is a cheerleader who has excelled in school.
But Mr. Piñon's "American Dream" could come to an abrupt end if the government carries out a pending deportation order related to an alleged drunken driving incident six years ago. Piñon's attorney confirms that his client was arrested for a DUI in 2010, but says the judge allowed the no contest plea to be withdrawn because Piñon didn’t adequately understand the proceedings.
Mr. Piñon was never convicted of a crime. And that matters because the Obama administration says it's targeting only convicted criminals for deportation.
The people of Madison, a town of 3,000 residents and only a few dozen Latinos, say Piñon is getting a raw deal. There are lawn signs for Donald Trump pinned across the deeply red town of Madison, but locals say the town has put party politics aside to help Piñon.
“This is a human rights thing; it’s something our government is doing that is really wrong,” said coach Alley.
The town recently collected 300 in-person signatures in just two days on a petition calling on immigration officials to halt Piñon's deportation. Even more signatures were collected online. It's no small feat in a conservative and homogenous town that has no history of protesting on behalf of immigrants' rights.
Madison's sudden activism in defense of a Mexican national has surprised immigrant rights advocates and attorneys who are familiar with the case and the town's political leanings.
“Madison is not one of the [towns] in Ohio where I would expect everyone in the community to go out of their way to help this guy and his family,” said Andy Bramante, the immigration attorney that is representing Piñon. “It really woke up a conservative Republican town to the terrible tragedies that occur to really good people when ICE leadership doesn’t do their job properly.”
Piñon’s attorney argues that his client is facing deportation over a technicality. If Piñon “lived in a place where the immigration court did not have such a large backlog, then he would not be being deported now,” said Bramante.
Ohio is home to close to 477,000 immigrants, according to estimates from the American Immigration Council. An estimated 95,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state, creating the backlog of cases.
After being placed into deportation proceedings, Piñon requested asylum in 2011, citing drug cartel violence in his hometown of León, Guanajuato, where his father was assaulted. But because of the pile of cases ahead of his in court, it took the judge three years—until Fall 2014—to reject Piñon's asylum request and issue a final deportation order.
Unfortunately for Piñon, the date of that ruling now makes his case an "enforcement priority," according to ICE officials. That's because Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a memo around the same time categorizing immigrants with deportation orders issued after Jan. 1, 2014 as priorities for deportation.
Piñon’s case illustrates how backwards immigration law can be. Had the immigration court not been swamped with a backlog, it could have ruled on Piñon's in a more timely manner, prior to the Jan. 1, 2014 cutoff date, and Piñon's deportation case would not be considered a priority now.
But because the ruling came 10 months too late, Piñon doesn't have many legal options left to fight deportation.
“Mr. Piñon-Hernandez …will remain in custody pending his removal from the United States,” said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for ICE, told Fusion. “ICE is using appropriate prosecutorial discretion and dedicating resources, to the greatest degree possible, to the removal of aliens considered priorities.
Bramante says the local ICE Enforcement and Removal director could have used her discretion to remove Piñon off the priority list, but didn't do so despite the strong community support in his defense.
“Even when mayors, school principals, and police chiefs tell her that a man is a model of loving, engaged parenting and community involvement and he poses no threat to public safety, she deports him,” Bramante said.
ICE did not respond directly to the allegations but said the agency is reviewing Piñon’s case.
“Each case is individually evaluated and custody determinations are made on a case-by-case basis considering all the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates,” said Walls in the statement sent to Fusion.
On Monday, friends, including coach Alley rallied in front of an immigration office in Cleveland chanting “Free Marcos! Free Marcos! Free Marcos!” The coach presented copies of the petitions to elected officials in the area also.
Bramante, the immigration lawyer, said he’s exhausted all legal avenues and Piñon's last hope is to get a reprieve from the court of public opinion.
“The only way this is going to stop is if public opinion is strong and loud enough in the next hours that ICE reconsiders his decision and realizes what a stupid thing it’s doing," said Bramante.