Arizona Man Faces Deportation After Filing Lawsuit Against Coconino County Sheriff
Jose Montelongo-Morales challenged the jail’s immigration detainer policy. He and some of his family members were arrested months later.
On April 19, at least 10 ICE agents, wearing bulletproof vests and armed with long guns, surrounded a trailer in Sedona, Arizona. They were looking for Jose Montelongo-Morales.
After roughly two hours, Montelongo-Morales, 28, emerged from the trailer, and agents pinned him to the ground, ending a two-day manhunt during which ICE threatened his family members with deportation if they refused to reveal his location.
Montelongo-Morales, an undocumented immigrant, had sued the Coconino County sheriff’s office months earlier in January over an immigration detainer policy. He was held in 2018 under Sheriff Jim Driscoll’s practice of agreeing to keep people whom ICE has flagged for up to 48 hours after their scheduled release date. Those detainer requests are voluntary.
Now, after his arrest and the arrests of some of his family members by ICE, Montelongo-Morales and those relatives face deportation. His lawyers and organizers say the arrests and his possible deportation are the result of his recent lawsuit against the office and Driscoll, who is named in the suit.
Neither a spokesperson nor an attorney for Driscoll’s office responded to requests for comment on Montelongo-Morales, the lawsuit or the office’s detainer policy.
Montelongo-Morales has lived in the U.S. since age 8. He told The Appeal that his parents hoped the move from Mexico would mean better wages, quality of life, and schooling.
In 2016, Montelongo-Morales was arrested for speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol, and possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Following the arrest, he left for Mexico voluntarily instead of waiting for an immigration judge to decide his fate. The process can be lengthy, and Montelongo-Morales would most likely be incarcerated at a detention center for the duration.
But he soon returned to the U.S. He had no roots in Mexico, he told The Appeal, and his three young children and immediate family were still in Arizona.
On Dec. 28, 2018, police pulled over Montelongo-Morales and arrested him after discovering that he had an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court regarding his 2016 arrest. Montelongo-Morales said police told him he had not paid a fine from the arrest.
Back at the Coconino County Jail, deputies informed him that ICE had flagged him and would take him into custody after he was released from jail. The jail would hold him for ICE after he posted bond, a deputy said. A judge set his bail at $200.
After speaking with his attorney Lee Phillips, Montelongo-Morales decided to file a lawsuit against Driscoll. “I’m really just doing this because of my kids,” said Montelongo-Morales. “I grew up here, I been here since I was 8, it’s my hometown. I told them that I didn’t want to go back [to Mexico], I was afraid. I had nobody down there.”
Attorneys for Montelongo-Morales filed the lawsuit on Jan. 9, while he was still in jail, alleging that Driscoll’s detainer policy was unlawful because sheriffs acting under Arizona law don’t have the authority to hold people in jail past their release date. “Requests made by immigration officials do not confer state or local law enforcement officers with any authority to arrest, detain, or prolong the detention of individuals for civil immigration violations,” the filing reads.
I grew up here, I been here since I was 8, it’s my hometownJose Montelongo-Morales, arrested by ICE
In February, attorneys from the sheriff’s office approached Montelongo-Morales with a proposal: In exchange for dropping the lawsuit, it would lift the ICE detainer. As his attorneys were in settlement talks with the sheriff’s counsel, jailers informed Montelongo-Morales that ICE had lifted his detainer.
Kathy Brody, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and one of Montelongo-Morales’s attorneys, said she thinks ICE lifted the detainer so that Driscoll could argue that her client no longer had legal standing to bring the lawsuit. And ultimately, the Coconino County Superior Court judge Mark Moran dismissed the lawsuit against Driscoll on June 13, ruling that Montelongo-Morales did not have standing to bring the suit because ICE lifted the detainer. “He no longer has a direct stake in the outcome of this controversy,” wrote Moran.
But before the case was dismissed, Montelongo-Morales paid his $200 bond on Feb. 14, after conferring with his attorneys, and left the jail. ICE agents waited in the parking lot to arrest him but were unable to identify him; organizers from Repeal Coalition had organized about 30 people to gather outside the jail — approximately six of them dressed like Montelongo-Morales, said Alejandra Becerra, an organizer with Repeal — and the diversion worked.
Once free, Montelongo-Morales attended his court-ordered classes for drinking and driving. He got a new job in Sedona, roughly a one-hour drive from Flagstaff, where he returned on the weekends to be with his family. “All this time we thought everything was calm because we didn’t hear about ICE anymore,” said Montelongo-Morales.
Montelongo-Morales’s father was driving in Flagstaff on April 18 when ICE agents in an unmarked vehicle pulled him over. After checking his name, they took him into custody and transported him to a bus outside the city to process him, a common practice for immigration officials. According to Montelongo-Morales, the agents asked his father where his son was and told him they would let him go if he gave them his location. The agents also told him that they had been watching the family and knew that Montelongo-Morales was in the city on the weekends. He refused to say where his son was.
Two hours later, agents tackled Montelongo-Morales’s brother-in-law to the ground and arrested him and Montelongo-Morales’s sister. Montelongo-Morales’s mother fainted as she looked on. At a trailer outside of Flagstaff, agents intimidated his sister and threatened to take her children away if she didn’t tell them where he was staying, according to Montelongo-Morales.
Becerra, the Repeal organizer, witnessed the encounter. “We realized that ICE is definitely here, it’s definitely targeting folks,” she told The Appeal. “It seems unusual because in Flagstaff they don’t function that way. They usually go through the jail.”
In Flagstaff [ICE agents] don’t function that way. They usually go through the jail.Alejandra Becerra, organizer with Repeal Coalition
The next day, agents took another one of Montelongo-Morales’s sisters into custody after approaching her outside a gas station. Because she didn’t have her diabetes medications with her, she became increasingly ill, according to Montelongo-Morales, and eventually told ICE agents where they could find her brother. According to Becerra, agents told this sister that they had tracked her family’s movements.
On April 19, Becerra said 15 trucks pulled up to the trailer where Montelongo-Morales was staying. They attempted to enter the home with a piece of paper verifying that they were there for Montelongo-Morales, but it was not an official warrant. Becerra said this is a typical practice for ICE agents hoping to trick someone unfamiliar with their rights. Eventually, Montelongo-Morales decided to go outside.
“I basically came and opened the door with my hands up because I was afraid for my life,” he said.
ICE agents then transported Montelongo-Morales to their Phoenix office. On the way, they stopped at a Home Depot to celebrate, high-fiving one another for his capture. Once in Phoenix, agents chastised Montelongo-Morales for filing the litigation, asking questions such as, “Why are you involved in groups that are going to affect your family?” and “Why are you listening to other people to do lawsuits against the government?” he told The Appeal.
“At that moment I was kind of just afraid of everything, tired of going through everything,” said Montelongo-Morales. “I was thinking of going back to Mexico and doing my life without my family, without anybody.”
“We believe [Montelongo-Morales’s arrest] was retaliation for bringing the lawsuit in the first place, challenging the policy of the Coconino County sheriff,” Brody, of the ACLU, said.
A spokesperson for ICE declined to answer questions about the arrests but told The Appeal that the agency will continue to target undocumented immigrants.
In courts across the country, similar lawsuits over the detainer policy have been filed against sheriffs. In February, a federal judge in California ruled that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s enforcement of the detainers was unconstitutional because it violates the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. And in September, Francisco Guardado Rios filed a class-action lawsuit against Virginia’s Culpeper County sheriff challenging the policy. The ACLU of Arizona also filed a lawsuit in 2018 on behalf of Guillermo Tenorio-Serrano, but that was dismissed after Tenorio-Serrano posted bond. He was eventually deported.
In May, the Colorado legislature passed a bill that prohibits law enforcement from complying with ICE detainers. And earlier this year, five newly elected North Carolina sheriffs announced that they would stop honoring the detainers.
Waiting in fear
Because detainees in immigrant detention are not constitutionally entitled to a bond hearing, Montelongo-Morales was incarcerated at Florence Correctional Center, a CoreCivic-run facility southeast of Phoenix, for roughly a month before he appeared before an immigration judge. Montelongo-Morales was held on a $20,000 bond—well over the state’s average immigration bond of roughly $12,000 for that time.
“It seemed it was clear it was punitive in how high the bond was set,” Pilar Weiss, the director of the Community Justice Exchange, which houses the National Bail Fund Network, told The Appeal.
Becerra, the Repeal organizer, said, “If you are setting $20,000 bonds for people who are immigrants and you just arrived or have been here and have been living the humble life an immigrant lives when you’re undocumented it just seems unrealistic.” A judge also set bond for Montelongo-Morales’s father at $7,500.
Now that Morales-Montelongo’s lawsuit has been dismissed, Brody, the ACLU attorney, said it is deciding its next move, which includes whether to appeal or take on another case related to the detainer policy. “The community deserves to have a ruling on the merits about whether this practice is lawful or unlawful under state law,” she said. If cases continue to get dismissed on standing, she said, “the community will never have that ruling.”
Montongo-Morales and the rest of his family members picked up by ICE are still in immigration proceedings, however. Montelongo-Morales has a hearing on Sept. 3. He said it could be three years before a final decision is made, but ICE could deport him at any time.
While he waits, Montelongo-Morales said he continues to fear that his family will be targeted. “It’s really hard in a lot of ways. … Mentally it really affected me. There’s days and times that it just hits me, and I feel like it’s going to happen again,” he said. “But hopefully everything works out. I’m trying to do what I can to be here as long as possible.”