Danilo Lopez, an undocumented farm worker slated for deportation at the end of this week, might be granted a temporary reprieve.
The 23-year-old Mexican has been living in Vermont for 5 1/2 years, working on a dairy farm in Charlotte. Instead of leaving the country Friday, Lopez is filing an application for a “stay of removal,” which, if granted, could delay his deportation for up to a year.
What exactly that will do for Lopez isn’t clear.
Technically, he’s still supposed to report to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City on Friday. When he doesn’t show up, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will issue a final “order for removal.” If he’s granted a “stay of removal,” that order would be put on hold, buying him some more time. How much time, Lopez doesn’t know, but he thinks it would be between six and 12 months, which would give him another chance to make his case for discretion.
It’s also possible, depending on what ICE officials decide, that Lopez could apply for a work permit during the intervening months. If Congress manages to pass an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, Lopez might be able to stay in the country permanently.
Natalia Fajardo, an activist with Migrant Justice, which has been advocating on behalf of Lopez, said an ICE official “hinted” that Lopez would be a “strong candidate” for a stay of removal.
In 2011, Lopez was a passenger in a car that was pulled over in Middlesex for speeding. After failing to produce proper identification, state police handed him over to the U.S. Border Patrol, setting in motion his deportation order.
Rather than flying under the radar, Lopez has made his plight public, becoming a high-profile immigrant rights advocate in state. After the 2011 incident, he advocated for a change in Vermont State Police policy that now prevents state police from requesting IDs and referring undocumented workers to Border Patrol when there’s no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
And this spring, Lopez helped spearhead the effort that led the Vermont Legislature to pass a law allowing undocumented workers to drive.
Lopez says his fate isn’t the only thing at stake — he hopes his case can show that ICE isn’t impervious to political pressure and grassroots activism.
“This is a part of a bigger struggle for immigrant rights to show that we can continue to have victories,” he said Wednesday. “With my struggle, the idea has always been we might show the path of how we might stop the deportations of others.”
Lopez is in a good position to test the leniency of ICE policy. Vermont’s congressional delegation, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger have all written letters urging ICE to grant Lopez prosecutorial discretion.
Supporters delivered a petition last week to ICE offices in Burlington, Mass., asking for the same. There’s even a video campaign, with people uploading testimonials to YouTube in support of Lopez.
Sen. Patrick Leahy’s spokesperson, David Carle, said Wednesday that Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano hasn’t responded to Leahy’s letter.
Lopez says he’s seen a change in the disposition of the ICE officials he’s dealt with recently, and he attributes that to the public attention his case has received. Lopez had previously appealed his deportation but was denied, and he was told by ICE officials that it was too late to grant prosecutorial discretion because a federal judge had already ruled on his case.
“I think that the public campaign and the fact that so many people have participated in it is what has caused this change with ICE. Because the last time that I heard from ICE they basically said, ‘It’s over. There’s nothing more that can be done.’ And now we have this possibility,” Lopez said.
Fajardo said an ICE attorney told Migrant Justice, “you’ve got a lot of ammo on your side.” Lopez said an ICE official reached out to his lawyer Wednesday to confirm that he’s applying for a “stay of removal,” and that type of proactive behavior on their part is new.
An ICE official told VTDigger that the agency could not comment on the case because it would violate Lopez’s privacy.
Lopez has become the local poster child in the fight against deportation, but there are undocumented workers in Vermont who are facing the same fate without any buttress of fame. Lopez’s detention in 2011 sparked a change in Vermont State Police policy, but local police aren’t bound by it.
Monday, according to Migrant Justice staff, a Franklin County Sheriff’s Department officer pulled over a car in Sheldon because its muffler was too loud. The driver was a documented immigrant but the two passengers — Ricardo Morales Abarca and David Mendez Lopez — were undocumented. The three were headed to the grocery story. Abarca and Lopez are being detained at St. Albans Regional Correctional Facility, according to Fajardo.
Fajardo says this is one of several recent incidents in Franklin County, which borders Canada, where undocumented workers have been referred to the U.S. Border Patrol. The Franklin County Sheriff’s office did return a call for comment, and the St. Albans Detention Center could not be reached.
Lopez doesn’t know Abarca or Lopez, but three of his friends in the state have also been slated for deportation. “I feel so much support but there is also a lot of weight on my shoulders right now.”
This story was updated at 5:30 p.m.