Lawyers for Juan Manuel Montes, the 23 year-old DACA recipient deported by the Department of Homeland Security, say they have full faith in their client's story. But in a conference call with reporters Thursday, Montes' legal team — he is suing DHS for documents relating to his case — did not provide evidence to corroborate Montes' claim that Border Patrol agents picked him up for no reason in Calexico, Calif., on Feb. 17 and summarily deported him.
"My team and I have had many, many conversations with Juan Manuel, and he is adamant about two things," Karen Tumlin, legal director of the National Immigration Law Center, said on the call Thursday. "Number one, that he had DACA at the time he was removed. And number two, that he did not leave the country that he loves, the country that he considers home, on his own volition."
"He maintains that a Border Patrol officer approached him in California in mid-February," Tumlin continued. "He was detained, and mere hours later he was kicked out of the city and country that he knows. He was not given access to a lawyer. He was not given a chance to go to court."
While Tumlin took care to attribute the story to Montes alone — "Here is what Juan Manuel says happened to him" and "He maintains …" — she had little to add whenever reporters asked for details to back up the story.
A few examples. Montes says he was minding his own business, walking down a street in Calexico on Feb. 17 when he was approached by Border Patrol. He says that when he told officers that he had forgotten his wallet containing his ID, he was detained and deported in a process that took only a few hours on the night of Feb. 17 and the early morning of Feb. 18. Montes says he went to a friend's house in Mexicali, Mexico. There, he says, friends from the U.S. brought him his wallet and some clothes. Then, Montes says, after leaving his Mexican friend's house around 10 p.m. on Feb. 18, he was accosted by two street criminals who stole his suitcase and beat him up. Montes says he again had left his wallet behind — this time at the Mexican friend's house — and, injured by the beating, he returned to the house, got his wallet and phone, and on the morning of Feb. 19, climbed the border fence back into the United States. A short time later, he was picked up by Border Patrol.
On the conference call, reporter Pilar Marrero of the Spanish-language publication La Opinion asked Tumlin about corroborating witnesses. Montes says he was in contact with a number of people at various times from Feb. 17-19. "He stayed with a friend, he had another friend cross the border to take him his wallet … have you been able to talk to them?" Marrero asked.
"We have been in contact not only with Juan but with his mom," Tumlin answered. "In terms of other folks as well, at this time we're not willing to put other folks who have been in contact with Juan in the spotlight, because of their own wishes." Tumlin suggested that some witnesses might have immigration issues of their own — "Folks have different kinds of status," she said. "But I will say that the consistency of Juan's story and speaking to his mother is remarkable and has lined up for weeks and weeks and weeks."
Tumlin said Montes was "seriously injured" by the beating he suffered during the robbery on Feb, 18. "He cannot walk without a heavy limp from that attack," Tumlin told reporters. Geneva Sands of ABC News wanted to know: When Montes wanted to re-enter the United States on Feb. 19, why did he choose to climb over the border fence rather than approach officials at the normal Calexico port of entry? "I was just wondering why he wouldn't try to come through legally and talk to an agent if he had been deported in these circumstances?" Sands asked.
"As Juan Manuel describes it in the lawsuit," Tumlin answered, "when he tried to come back over the border, he was indeed, first of all, physically seriously injured, from just having been beaten up and was afraid for his physical safety, and he just wanted to come home to the country where he feels safe and where his life is."
Finally, Tumlin announced that DHS had provided some documents in response to Montes' lawsuit. "Just this morning, the government finally produced just a few pages of responsive documents, detailing only the second deportation by Juan Manuel," Tumlin said.
What documents were they? asked Alejandro Lazo of the Wall Street Journal. What new information did they provide?
"I will be honest that I haven't been able to open all the documents," Tumlin said. "My team has opened them." She called the papers "paltry, insufficient, and incomplete," but did not describe their contents.
In 40 minutes of questions and answers, the lawyers did not offer new details to support Montes' story. Indeed, after the conference call, the public did not know much more about the status of the case then it knew before. Department of Homeland Security officials say they have no record of the Feb. 17 encounter that Montes claims. They say the only time Border Patrol had contact with Montes was when he was caught after climbing over the fence into the U.S. on Feb. 19. And they say he was deported at that time because he had left the country without authorization — authorization required by the terms of his DACA status — and that doing so resulted in the immediate termination of Montes' DACA protections.
Montes' lawyers vowed to press on with their suit to force DHS to turn over more documents. But to make the case anything more than simply Juan Manual Montes' story, his legal team will have to produce some evidence of its own.