Since Justino Vixtha’s arrest last May, his family has been dealing with the fact that he might get deported because of his undocumented status.
By Stephanie Macrinos
May 21, 2019 began like any other day for the Vixtha family. Husband and wife Justino and Melissa rose early. Justino got ready for work while Melissa woke their three daughters, Korrina, Rubi, and Priscilla, for school. Justino left the family’s home on the northside of Syracuse at about 6:30 a.m. to pick up his nephew and a co-worker. As he left, he saw a gray truck with two men inside parked at the corner. He had seen the truck parked there before, but this time, when he drove away, the truck followed.
The truck continued to follow as Justino drove to where his nephew and co-worker were. It also followed as he drove to work. He lost sight of the truck when he merged onto Interstate-81, but a white van soon fell into place behind him.
The van followed as he took the exit onto the Onondaga Nation reservation. After Justino passed Firekeepers Restaurant, the van turned on flashing blue and red lights and pulled him over. Other unmarked vehicles stopped on the side of the freeway, including the gray truck.
Men exited the vehicles and approached Justino’s car. They asked his name. He gave it. The men said they were ICE officers, and they claimed to have a warrant for his arrest along with a deportation order from 1999. Both Justino and his co-worker were arrested. His nephew was left in the car, and he was not permitted to make or take any phone calls until the officers left.
That is the account Melissa gave of the day of her husband’s arrest.
Justino is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who entered the United States without legal permission in the late 1990s. Since then, he married, became a father, and received legal employment documentation and a driver’s license. When he started the legal immigration process, Justino’s attorney informed him of his deportation order. Beginning the immigration process red-flagged the order.
The Vixtha family received a Notice to Alien of File Custody Review soon after Justino’s arrest. It reported that Justino’s custody status would be reviewed on or around August 10, nearly 12 weeks after his arrest.
This long stretch of time between an arrest and a preliminary hearing is not outside of the norm. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data gathering and analysis organization at Syracuse University, reports that some immigration courts are so backlogged that they are scheduling out preliminary hearings until 2022. Last month, the backlog grew to 1,023,767 active cases assigned to 442 judges.
This year, TRAC also found that immigrant detention has increased by 22% since September 2016. An ICE official reported in May that over 52,000 people were in their custody. Justino falls among the 58% of detainees with no criminal convictions. As of June, less than 3% of the thousands of deportation orders filed by the Department of Homeland Security cited a criminal history.
The first 24 hours after Justino’s arrest were filled with uncertainty. Justino was not permitted to call home, and immigration officials could not or would not tell Melissa his whereabouts. Four hours after the arrest, Justino was transferred to the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, New York.
Life stopped that morning in May for Melissa and her three daughters. Her daughters had not yet left for school. She told them, “You’re not going to school today. Dad’s gone.” Meanwhile, she called off her shift at Colonial Laundromat. Instead, Melissa went to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in downtown Syracuse as soon as it opened and began the long process of bringing her husband home. “It’s been a living hell ever since,” she says, choking back tears.
“I was scared because we thought he might be deported, and we would never see him again.”Rubi Vixtha
Melissa says no one told her where her husband was detained until the next morning. When she found out, she drove straight there. “It was horrible because he was behind glass, and I had to talk to him on a telephone like he’s a criminal,” Melissa says. “He looked rough. He was scared and upset. He had bags under his eyes, black circles because he hadn’t slept that night.”
Losing a husband and a father has put an emotional and financial strain on the family. Justino’s job as a landscaper was the primary source of income. Without him, Melissa is struggling to pay the bills. She can’t visit him as much as she would like. Sometimes she can’t afford the tolls and gasoline — the detention facility is 112 miles away from their home.
The legal fees are also a burden. Soon after Justino’s arrest, Melissa had to pay $2,000 for their attorney to file a motion for bond and custody redetermination. Melissa applied for public assistance, but she was denied based on her gross income. “I’m getting worried because school is coming, and I can’t afford school supplies. I can’t afford school clothes for all of them,” she says back in July. She can’t take her daughters to see a movie or to the zoo, she says. A friend set up a GoFundMe page to gather donations, but the family is struggling to get by.
Meanwhile, Justino’s employer Carol Watson, owner of Carol Watson Greenhouse & Landscaping in Lafayette, New York, says her business is struggling without him. He is her strongest and most reliable worker, and he has an admirable work ethic, she says.
But the financial strain isn’t the only thing the Vixtha family is dealing with. Korrina, Rubi, and Priscilla have taken their father’s arrest particularly hard. “I was scared because we thought he might be deported, and we would never see him again,” says Rubi when she was told that her father was arrested. Meanwhile, Korrina avoids being at home. The house feels strange without her father. Not long after her father was arrested, she started to see a therapist.
Rubi, however, speaks to no one about her father’s detainment. Not her friends. Not her classmates. “They wouldn’t understand,” she says. “Rubi doesn’t like the attention. She doesn’t want them feeling sorry for her,” Melissa says. The youngest, 10-year-old Priscilla, spends much of her time with friends, outside of the home.
Meanwhile, Melissa struggles to find the energy to do anything. When she finishes a shift at work, all she wants to do is sleep. Since the arrest, the family has also missed out on many celebrations: Justino’s birthday, Father’s Day, and Korrina and Rubi’s middle school graduation. Rubi did not attend, refusing to go without her father.
Seeing the children struggle is what hurts the most, Melissa says. “I just want him back home so we can have our life back. I want my kids to have their lives back,” she says. The girls miss going to the park with their dad. They miss going to church on Sunday mornings, and they miss exploring the local farmer’s markets. And they couldn’t do their annual family trip to the Water Safari Resort in Old Forge.
The state of New York and Syracuse, in particular, is home to a large immigrant and refugee community. It is also a hotbed for activism. Recent immigration legislation and a rise in anti-immigrant ideology sparked outrage among local activists. On July 12, an immigrant rights activist group called Lights for Liberty hosted over 800 vigils across the world to protest the detention of asylum-seekers.
One of these protests was in Syracuse. Sixteen local organizations planned the demonstration, which took place outside of the James M. Hanley Federal Building downtown. The protest began with a speech from Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, the director of the Central New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We have an important task in making sure that history knows, when this moment came, that we said, ‘We will not stand for it,’” he says.
Speakers from other local advocacy groups made a call to action, encouraging attendees to call their congressional representatives and demand the closure of the detention facilities. All speeches were translated into Spanish.
After sundown, they lit hundreds of candles and raised them toward the stage as the Syracuse Community Choir sang “Somos El Barco,” or “We Are the Sea,” by Peter, Paul, and Mary. They ended the vigil by reading the names of detainees who died in custody. Hundreds attended, including Melissa and her daughters.
At the hearing in August, the court declined to take jurisdiction of Justino’s case. He remains in federal custody. The Vixthas are holding on to hope that Justino will be released. Their attorney, José Perez, believes Justino’s chances of being released on bail are good.
The family is not prepared, however, should he be deported to Mexico. “I know there’s that chance. God forbid, if it does happen, I will leave [with him],” Melissa says. Korrina and Rubi have passports, but Priscilla does not. Melissa is considering getting her one now. Just in case.